DAY 22. TUESDAY DECEMBER 30th 2015. KLM TO AMSTERDAM (Again)
I do hope that the next two weeks don’t wipe the African smile off my face. I noticed this afternoon that a great sense of satisfaction is upon me and the smile seldom far from my lips. Africa is like a drug. A sort of rejuvenation drug for me. Why, I even found my self walking up the stairs in the hotel on every occasion – and I was on the fifth floor – 95 steps! I feel healthy and happy.
So here I am only three weeks after I flew the 5607 miles from Amsterdam to Johannesburg, flying the other way on a crazy jaunt to America. But I am making this as fun as I can! I am discovering that the indignities of air travel can be ameliorated when you travel with the wealthy. I am in seat 4A – World Business Class, where I even have a name from the cabin attendants, room to stretch out fully and as much comfort as is possible in a cattle wagon at 30,000 feet. Every seat on this plane is taken. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year to fly. I shall revel in the relative comfort.
My motorbike stands in the extensive car park of the smart Protea Hotel, a member I think of the Marriott chain. My bags are in store until I return. All this for no fee. I shall return to the hotel for the night of the 10th of January and resume my African journey next day.
It is a strange feature of South Africa that everyone tells me to be afraid. It seems to be endemic. Go in a tourist office and they will tell you to go to shopping malls; hotel staff will tell you that you mustn’t wander downtown; whites tell you you won’t feel comfortable in the ‘locations’ and you mustn’t board ‘black taxis’ – the minibus transport of the people. “Well, actually, we have to tell you that,” admitted the cheerful, charming hotel porter, who originates from Mount Fletcher, the town I dismissed as not worth staying in a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t tell him that; after all, home is home…
I have wandered at will all over this country, gone to all the places I am told not to, and done many of the things I am warned about. I have never had a single moment’s apprehension. Maybe ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been quite so advisable to walk in deepest downtown Johannesburg, but that was ten years ago. Now it is much safer. So I left my valuables and bag in a left luggage facility at the airport and took the efficient rapid transit train into the heart of the city – a train with uniformed security guards in every carriage and on every station to comfort all the tourists who have been constantly warned of the dangers of South Africa.
Central Johannesburg is Africa! I wandered the hot streets with a happy smile. Here were thousands of street traders, crowded shops, broken pavements, hair stylists galore – complete with pictorial displays of elaborate styles. There were barrows of fruit, festoons of cheap clothing, dust and litter in puddles, wares spilling across pavements and people sitting and standing everywhere, talking loudly. This is Africa. A few miles up town I visited Sandton and Rosebank, wealthy shopping centres of zero atmosphere beyond that cynical shininess of rampant commercialism, the shallow aspirations of ‘style’ and ‘stuff’.
I went to see what it was I was supposed to be so afraid of… Shadows, imagination, urban myths! Go and see for yourself. I walked, unmolested for more than two and a half hours, enjoying the colour, the noise, the atmosphere of this wonderful continent. I saw two other white faces – this in a country of which ten percent of the population is white. Those two faces belonged to a shambling elderly white fellow who looked as if he had been in hard times for many a long year and a formidable sharp-faced woman who must have had the conviction of god inside her. A missionary with whom you wouldn’t mess!
Later I stopped in Rosebank, a shallow, bland place of bright lights and hard surfaces, all shiny marble, glass and steel where white people and Asians shopped without animation. So strange: the twain never meet – or at least as little as possible… One small vestige of the division was so obvious to me: I have never been in any place in Africa where so few people met my eye and returned my smiles. These are the feature of Africa that keeps me coming back year after year. Those that did, returned a friendly enough greeting.
So many people ask me, back home, “aren’t you afraid, these places you go?” I have a stock, flippant answer now: “Yes, I get a bit worried in parts of Leeds on a saturday night!” my firm belief is that if you look afraid you find trouble. Use your instincts and walk confidently. Go and see for yourself.
I’ve met a few ‘Precious’s’, a ‘Blessing’ and an ‘Innocent’ but I was delighted to stop at an outside table of a restaurant for a beer and soup and be served by Curiosity! “I am the only one!” she declared, when I admired her name. She had that happy, instantaneous smile that I find so attractive. With compassion, curiosity is my most admired quality.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had discovered Africa sooner. Would my obsessive independence have been compromised? For I do find African women so very attractive! It has something to do, of course, with their spontaneous dazzling smiles that express SO much in a magical movement of a few facial muscles. The whole continent – to me at least – is encapsulated by that ability to express warmth, fortitude and friendship to strangers. Perhaps it is as well that I came to Africa last – so to speak – for it contains all the fascination I need for the rest of my travels. (You know, I’m not sure I ever articulated that before… Even to myself.)
Africa is extraordinary. The overlooked continent, full of poverty and distress but also filled with kindness, fortitude, compassion, laughter and warmth. I’ve written it before, but I shall repeat myself: the vast majority of African people, certainly in the parts I have come to know, are people who live in the moment: they don’t look back with regret or anger and they don’t look forward with envy and greed. They just are, but in a very positive way. They live mainly in a philosophical acceptance of how things are. When Wechiga broke his arm and his leg a few weeks ago, he spoke from his hospital bed, waiting into the sixth week after the accident until the surgeon was able to operate and plate his bones. “Oh, it’s just part of life! I’m managin'” He had been taken, in an old, bumpy truck, 100 miles to a district hospital which had the surgeon with the skill to do the operation; it couldn’t be done in Navrongo. His daughter was having to stay and care for him since facilities in African hospitals are meagre. The ward will have been without air conditioning and probably dusty; his food will have been poor; comfort non-existent; stimulation nil. “…just part of life…”
Now I am on my way to self-interested America where, as in Europe, people complain at the least inconvenience, indignity, discomfort or reduction in what they see as their ‘right’ to a strife-free life…
African travel puts the world and life into a different perspective; one I am privileged to share but not to have to endure. I can flit across the oceans like this. My Ghanaian family cannot.
DAY 23. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 31st 2014. PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND, USA
Business Class, it must be said, is a different travelling experience to being down the back. Even on Delta, the Ryanair of intercontinental carriers, the biggest airline in the world and the most perfunctory, I am comfortably ensconced in a pod-style seat, gazing out through three windows as we fly over Keighley! My wine and champagne comes in a real glass, my smoked salmon on china with an attempt at napery, my cutlery is of metal and we enjoy the attention of four cabin attendants – for 36 of us. Down the back about six or eight attendants take care of the other 200… Yes, this is the life. And last week I was smothered in dust riding across the top of Lesotho! Oh, I am happy with life these days! These wonderful contrasts. Yesterday I sweated through the streets of downtown Africa sustained by a meat pie from a roadside stall, which didn’t have much meat in it, and today I am waited on six miles high in the sky, looking down at a Britain from which I feel oddly detached, covered in snow. So odd to fly over like that and know that it’s the closest I am going to get for a couple of months.
Yup! I am having a terrific time! My bum, as my dear old friend Dee would say, is firmly in the butter! Damned good butter it is too. Pity I am not waited on by lovely African smiles here on Delta – an airline that certainly gives equal opportunities to the fat, ugly and old!!! (Sorry, that’s the wine and euphoria writing!)
Another 3502 miles today, plus the 40 to Providence. I shall have travelled 9150 miles in 20 hours. How remarkable! At a cost of £2340 – well, that takes me aback too but Cattle Class would have been about £1500 worth of misery, so I reckon it was worth it! And I made history on this seven hour flight to Boston. I fell asleep on an aeroplane, unaided by any drugs, for the first time in my several hundred flights. I watched no films, listened to little but just slept and dozed – at full stretch, even my six feet one, in my pod-like recliner that goes flat as a bed. I hope the flight back from Detroit to Amsterdam in ten days has this facility! I’ve never travelled so comfortably in the air before. And Delta, an airline with the worst food, so bad that I usually bring my own sandwiches (I did say it’s the Ryanair of the inter-continentals), can pull out the stops if you pay an extra fifty percent.
I could get used to this.
Well, nine thousand miles in business class to meet a client. They must want me! That helps the self-esteem no end. It helps the meeting too. Nine thousand miles from southern hemisphere summer to a bitter northern hemisphere winter…. Ouch. Tee shirt and shorts to minus three degrees.
My virtually-sister-and-brother, Grace and Carl met me, surprisingly fresh, at the airport with a warm welcome. We realised tonight that in about three months Carl and I will have known one another for fifty years, and Grace not much less! I am so fortunate to have good friends and extended families all over the world! It’s the greatest joy of my somewhat peripatetic life. So many welcomes: such an interesting address book!
We saw in 2015 together, cheating a little by opening a bottle of champagne an hour before the end of the year, drinking our toasts and retiring to bed. By now, for me, it was six in the morning of January 1st. I felt justified, after almost twenty hours in the air, nine thousand miles and three continents in twenty four hours, in sloping off to sleep a little early.
So starts 2015. I wonder what the year will bring? On so many pages of so many diaries over the years I have written that it felt like time for new directions. I’m not writing that this year. I seem to have found them – or found contentment with the old ones from which I can now cherry-pick my way through the next year. Happiness in Harberton has been a great settler; my relative financial independence nowadays (I’ll never be very rich but I seem to have enough to cover my fairly modest wishes); my ability to travel where and when I want, good health, good friends, and that feeling that life is such fun when you go out and meet it head on…
Welcome, two thousand and fifteen!