Monday, November 5, 2012

Patching punctures in the soul

 A version of this story was first published in Ride Magazine

When I noticed the rear-wheel puncture I knew what was going to happen next.  “Oh no, not here.” I muttered to myself as I anticipated the curious gallery likely to gather to watch my repairs.  I’d pulled off the tar to buy water at a collection of shack-shops.  It was bustling with young men.  This was in fact a one-stop shopping centre for motor supplies.  Instead of water I found motor oil, brake pads and assorted other things useful to 2-stroke motorcycle owners, but not to a cyclist with dwindling water supplies.

I noticed the puncture as I was wheeling my bike through the soft sand back to the tar.  Already the shoppers had stopped to stare at the sight of me and my fully laden bike.  I pushed the bike up to a ramshackle fence lay it down in the sand and unpacked it.   Although mechanically inept I can handle a tube change, but the audience was growing and with it my performance anxiety.

My tyre-levers produced a disquieting murmur of disapproval.  I glanced up furtively at the frowning experts of many thorny bike-problems.  Once the tyre was loose enough from the rim I slid my fingers under the edge to loosen the rest.  A murmur of approval rippled through what was now a crowd of at least sixty men.  I found the offending thorn and pointed at it with an emphasised “aha!”  Three of the spectators leaned in close and nodded grimly.  Tube in place, I produced my pump from my water-pack with a theatrical “ta-da!”, now warming to my audience.  But this was no laughing matter, their frowns frozen on their faces.  Even the theatrical bows with which I ended the show elicited stony-faced silence.

I was several days into a 1500 kilometre tour from Cuito Cuanavale in south-eastern Angola, to Tsumeb in Namibia.  Last time I’d been in Angola was during the war in 1987 when as a 20 year-old conscript I spent three months in the often thick forests between Mavinga and Cuito Cuanavale.

During my trip I rode through the tall trees of the beautiful forest that covers much of the south-eastern corner of Angola. I also crossed many of the rivers that journey with impunity across national borders.  Several hundred kilometres into Angola I crossed the wide Kuvango River which starts life in the highlands of Angola and ends in the vast swamps of the Okavango Delta.  I crossed the Kunene at the vibrant, if a little scruffy city of Matala, and remembered that as a conscript, twenty-five years earlier, I had swum in the same river at the Hippo Pools near Ruacana Falls.  These and other rivers provide vital water for people to drink, bathe and wash clothes in.  In many places on one side of a bridge I’d see women washing themselves and their children, with clothes and bed-linen draped over bushes.  On the other side men would be washing themselves, their motorbikes and their cars.  At the Cuito River I took my bike, white with dust, from the back of the Land Rover and gave it a full immersion baptism before washing myself in the clear, cold water.

I knew that I’d be camping wild on many nights so I carried a tent, sleeping bag, stove etc.  I also carried about six days’ worth of food and up to seven litres of water.  In bigger towns I sought accommodation to wash my dirty clothes – I only took one change – and to clean myself. In hindsight I could have managed without the tent and made-do with a groundsheet.

I returned to see Angola in peacetime, to enjoy the beauty of the bush and meet the people who live the country that is in its tenth year of peace following thirty years of civil war. 
I thought about the ways I could travel and settled on cycling because I wanted to have the closest possible contact with the people and the landscape.  It worked.  I exchanged greetings with just about everyone along the road.  Motorcycles would give me a friendly toot, people sitting outside the ubiquitous tavernas, would shout greetings or laugh in surprise.  Often I would stop for a chat.  I don’t speak Portuguese so this usually took the form of me listing as many of the towns as I could remember between Cuito Cuanavale and wherever I found myself.  The average response consisted of eyebrows shooting upwards at great speed followed by the Portuguese equivalent of “All the way from Cuito?” “Yes”, “On a bicycle?” “Yes”.  Then there could be hoots of surprised laughter.  I couldn’t tell whether I was being judged to be strong and courageous, or insane.  Probably the latter.

My longest day came after I decided to push all the way to Lubango in what turned out to be a 126km ride.  I knew the regional capital of Huila Province was up against the mountain but I hadn’t reckoned on the number of hills I’d have to climb at the end of a long day.  Then, looking forward to a hot shower and a cold beer, I was told that the place I’d chosen to stay was halfway up the mountain.  It was like arriving in Cape Town after nine hours cycling to be told you needed to climb Kloof Street to get to your guesthouse.

The infrastructure, though improving rapidly, is still ravaged by the war.  Guesthouses are not always to be found, and when they are, they’re often full.  In a R300 a night pensão my “shower” consisted of squatting over a bowl of cold water with only a candle for warmth and light.

The roads were surprisingly good.  Road-builders are laying tar at an incredible rate.  I enjoyed hundreds of kilometres of good tar, and a fair bit of old colonial tar, which was potholed, or shell-holed.  Where in a car one would have to slow to a crawl to negotiate the damage, on my two narrow wheels I was usually able to find enough unbroken tar to cruise comfortably without breaking my rhythm. 

Once or twice I found myself riding on a section of gravel that had been compacted in preparation for tarring.  I ignored the no-entry sign and flew along the smooth surface while cars and trucks battled the loose gravel and sand on the parallel detour.  Later in the ride I’d have no option but to ride a similarly poor section of sandy road and spend a good deal of time picking up myself and the bike after falling.  Then the road-building ended and I was on an old rutted gravel road.  The trees came to the road’s edge creating a beautiful avenue which tunnelled off into the green-fringed distance.  The ever-present mine-fields were closer so I perched on the road-edge when I took a snack-break.

When it got rough it was very rough.  And as it got roughest, so my good fortune deserted me.  On the worst piece of road, all loose gravel and sand, I started a bad bout of traveller’s guts.  I stopped regularly to rest.  I had to cover over fifty kilometres.  Nothing compared to the hundred kilometre daily average I was managing, but this was a difficult of section, I was dehydrated and, at one point, heaved my much needed lunch into the sand.  I was miserable, sick and felt very alone.  I was in the middle of nowhere and needed to keep going. 

I made it to Kuvango, on the river that eventually drains into the Okavango swamps, and holed up in a friendly but thread-bare pensao.  No flushing loo and a limited supply of water which arrived in a bowl every morning only accentuated my discomfort. I spent three days recovering.

My bike, although a source of amusement amongst more image-conscious friends back home, was viewed as a piece of high-tech by many of the Angolans I met.  Near Xangongo one very cool dude on a shiny Chinese two-stroke even offered to buy it.  “Then how do I get home?” I asked with an exaggerated shrug. “No problem, no problem.” He said, without explaining how the problem be solved. 

My scraped old mountain-bike has lugs to attach a carrier and the v-brakes, even I can maintain.  I imported the Brookes saddle and touring carrier for double the R1300 I paid for the bike.  For touring I figure that high-tech is a liability considering that the nearest bike shop capable of fixing, say, disc-brakes, was probably in Windhoek, about 2000kms from my starting point.

I crossed into Namibia at Oshikango, relieved that I could have long conversations in English and have long, hot showers.  I felt satisfaction at having crossed a chunk of Angola on two wheels relying only on leg-power and having said hello to just about everyone along the road.  I only had to cover the remaining three hundred kilometres to Tsumeb to complete what had been a rich and rewarding ride on my aging Silverback mountain-bike.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My very generous host, Benjamin.

The Kind and the Curious

 This story first appeared in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly

The sun hung low over the ridge as I free-wheeled down the hill to the river.  People were scattered around the flood-plain, washing off a day of work in the cold water of the braided river-channels.  Every now and again someone would call a greeting and I’d respond with a “Boa tarde!” and a wave.  I stopped my bicycle where a man was standing next to the road.  He was in conversation with some young women who were doing their laundry in the river below.

The man returned my greeting and looked me up and down with open curiosity.  I wasn’t offended.  A tourist on a fully-loaded bicycle is probably a sight unseen in this south-eastern corner of Angola.  Administrador por favor?” was as much Portuguese as I could muster.  I know I’m supposed to report to the government administrator/mayor in any town I want to spend the night.  The man in the new jeans and neat black polo shirt rattles something off and points up the road to where the village spreads to the left of the road.  I catch the word escola, school.  I ask for clarification and after a couple more attempts to give me what I assume are directions to the Administrador he gives up and beckons me to follow him.  Outside a roadside tavern sit four young and similarly neatly dressed young men.  There’s a conversation and another young man takes over as my guide and the first one walks back in the direction of the river.  The young clothes-washing women are evidently more interesting than a middle-aged man on a bicycle.

I follow my new guide and his friends deeper into the collection of mud-brick huts.  Some of the huts are round with roughly thatched roofs;  others are rectangular with roofs of corrugated iron.  I now have a growing number of children in train.  I feel like a cycling pied-piper.  By the time I reach the top of the village there must be over seventy children excitedly chattering and laughing and shoving each other playfully as they swarm around the bike.

I’ve been struggling to haul my heavy bike through the deep sand and I’m relieved when we finally halt outside a group of rectangular huts.  I’m introduced to a man called Benjamin who turns out to be the local school teacher.  There is no Administrador so he is the next best thing.

It was my first night of what would be a three week bicycle tour of Southern Angola.  I’d driven to Cuito Cuanavale with friends and now I was on a solo journey back to the Namibian border.  The village of Masseca is on what was known as “The Road of Death” during the civil war which lasted over thirty years.  The reason is clear.  The road-side is littered with rusting wrecks of military vehicles and the red and white squares periodically painted on the trees warn of the patient killers buried in the sand: land-mines.  Nervously, I was feeling my way into this journey and was seeking the comfort of company.

I’m invited into the house, large by the standards of the village.  Someone takes my bike and squeezes it through the front door.  Another man barks at the large group of curious children.  They shriek with laughter and move back a little before crowding in once more.  I’m ushered into the front room and we’re joined by some of the teacher’s family, mostly young adults who I take to brothers and sisters.  There’s a Formica table and some chairs.  A portrait of Angola’s President Dos Santos is prominently displayed.  My bike is leant against the wall and I am offered a chair.  At the square glassless window the faces of older children, who are tall enough to reach, watch us while chattering excitedly. 

Benjamin and I try to make conversation but without a common language this is difficult.  More so because of the din made by the spectators.  He tells them to go away.  They back away for a few seconds but their curiosity gets the better of them and soon the window is again crammed with wide-eyed faces.  Eventually my host gets up and closes the little wooden window-shutter.  It’s suddenly quieter but also pitch-black as the little window provided the only light in the room.  There’s no electricity.  Our conversation consists of long pauses between stilted attempts at communication aided by my Portuguese/English dictionary.  Eventually I get things moving by pulling out my camera and taking some photographs.  I set my camera to automatic by the light of my head-torch.  I aim hopefully into the darkness and manage to capture some photographs of the little group.  They pass the camera around, delighted at their images on the camera’s screen.

I explain carefully that I have my own food and that I don’t want to be any further trouble to them.  But although I can show them “vegetariano” in the dictionary, it becomes clear that the concept is meaningless in rural Angola.  A couple of the young women appear with serving bowls.  A bowl of warm water is passed around and Benjamin, two of the older boys and I wash our hands.  A large enamel bowl contains pap, the smaller ones hold some dried fish, what looks like pork, and something else I can’t make out in the dim torchlight.  I need to make a quick decision.   I haven’t eaten any form of animal flesh in over fifteen years.  As a total stranger I am now a guest in the home of a very generous family.  It’s clear that I will be sleeping in their home tonight.  It would be hard enough turning down this meal which has been specially rustled up for me had I been able to explain sensitively in fluent Portuguese.  I decide that refusing this food in the blunt way that my limited Portuguese would allow would be very discourteous.  My host expertly rolls some pap into a ball and dips it into one of the dishes.  I make my decision and follow his example. 

Whatever is in the bowl I choose is delicious.  Rich in flavour and tender between my teeth, for a second I think I’m chewing a sundried tomato.  Of course, it can’t be.  But it is quite delicious. I’d hoped that the mystery dish would prove to be a vegetable of some kind.  As I make my way through a third morsel of unknown I come to the conclusion that I am eating slivers of marinated goat.

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep on a thin mattress in the same room as President Dos Santos, Benjamin insists on pushing my bicycle through the soft sand and back to the road, a final gesture of hospitality before I start out on the road west again.  There is something about the generosity of this family that both humbles and warms me.  This is the first of many such encounters on my 1500km journey through Angola and northern Namibia and it reminds me of the goodness of ordinary people.  This is more poignant for me given the tragic war that tore this country apart for so many years.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Anniversary of the Battle of the Lomba River - 3 October 1987

I’m running as fast as I can. I feel no pain, only a vague awareness that my lungs are burning with exertion.  Adrenaline and terror drive me forward.  High explosives rip the air apart, shrapnel shrieks around me.  My legs are pumping yet I feel like I’m standing still.  I throw down my rifle and webbing.  The safety of the tree line hundreds of metres away gets no closer.  White phosphorous rains burning chemical.  Men are on fire, their screams drive me on.

It’s not me.  It’s the man I couldn’t see.

Twenty-five years ago today I was sitting under a camo-net writing in my journal.  I was recording my experience of the day before.  My body deeply fatigued by endless hours of battle.  I had survived one of the most ferocious battles of the war.

I never saw the enemy yet their counter-bombardment was accurate enough to straddle our vehicle several times, leading our buddies in the next vehicle to report that we were all dead through direct hits.  Radio reports indicated that our white phosphorous bombs were setting men on fire in the flood-plain.  I didn’t need to see this for the image to disturb me for the rest of my life.

I fought with one of the best units in the army.  That knowledge does nothing to provide comfort.  Except, perhaps, that it increased my chances of surviving.

The men in the floodplain died from bombs that had my fingerprints all over them.  I didn’t see them then but now I’ve met some of their comrades.  Men and women who would have burned in the floodplain that day or whose bombs would have landed in my Ratel had it not been for an angel’s breath. 

Therein lies both the tragedy and the hope.  If one sees the person, not the objectified enemy, then one could never go to war.  The question for all of us in South Africa today is this:  Who are you objectifying and to where could this lead?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Grim, rusting reminders.

Back from the Past: Some Reflections

I met a Cuban who fought at Cuito Cuanavale when I was in the attacking army.  We spoke no common language but connected in a way only old soldiers can.  We held each other like long lost brothers.  Another scar felt healed.  I met ex-PLAN soldiers and felt humbled by the adversity they had faced and the courage it took for them to take to the bush to fight for what they believed in.  They reached out to me, who once wore the uniform of their hated enemy, with a magnanimity that shone light into a previously dark place in my soul.  I conversed, often without a common language, with farmers and teachers, engineers and herd-boys, and was reminded of how warm and hospitable people can be to strangers and how sharing is most meaningful when it is simply an honest sharing of oneself.

I travelled nearly 1500 kilometres on my bicycle and exchanged a greeting with nearly everyone walking next to that long road.  Bon dia, boa tarde.  They would smile or stare or laugh at the unusual sight of a man on a loaded bicycle, so many interactions and connections that would not have been possible had I roared through Angola and part of Namibia with the aid of a motor.  My bicycle, a conversation piece. 

  Cuito Cuanavale, an almost mythical place in my war, a place on a map, never seen as I sat not so far away in a foxhole in the Angolan sand.  The place I’d chosen to begin my bike journey.  I felt surprisingly strong emotions in the few days I spent there. From Cuito Cuanavale to Menongue, the so-called “Road of Death”, strewn with the wreckage of war: tanks, APC’s, logistics vehicles, hit by air attacks, or rockets or UNITA ambushes.   It was a depressing reminder of the utter waste caused by 30 years of war.

My slow progress from those battlefields was mirrored by my slow internal processing and meaning-making; my responses to returning to Angola.  Evidence of war decreased with every kilometre beyond Menongue and my thoughts turned slowly from the past and its grim rusting reminders, to the beauty of the bush and the openness of the people I met.  I became absorbed in my immediate task of journeying, feeding myself, finding a place to sleep and with every meeting along the way.  The war receded both in its manifestation in the landscape, and in my mind.  The further I travelled from Cuito, the less I thought about war.

Now I’m home again.  My journey continues by other means.  But whereas once I felt the constant pull to return to Angola, to put some ghosts to rest, now I need never return there again.  And if I do, it will be for other reasons. 

The word Angola will no longer only mean war to me, but a deeper, richer, more positive tapestry.