Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hitchhike across West Africa

It's April 2007 and my sister and I are sitting in a hostel in Madrid listening to Marco, a young Italian, explain the odds stacked against soccer team AC Milan in the Champions League. They're outnumbered 3-1 by teams from England in the play-offs, he tells us, odds that have never been beat. But in futbol, he says, anything is possible. He predicts his team will win in Athens in a month.
The conversation turns and we explain our own plans, or lack thereof, to get across West Africa in the next six weeks. We get dubious looks from some and a warning from two Swedes about rampant con artists and pickpockets. We'll get by, I tell them. In Africa, anything is possible.

I was all but talked out when a young Moroccan woman, in a white headscarf, sat beside me, visibly excited. I had just received a crash course in Arabic and was pondering the many symbols for "d" while struggling to fold my map when she noticed my trouble. "The map is very hard to fold," she said, and laughed. Najat - I later learned was her name - didn't fully stop laughing till the train separated us three hours later. With the paperwork she had gotten that day, she told us, she could go to Canada, which meant marrying the man she loved, after two failed arranged marriages. When I asked her how that worked in Islam, she claimed she could not be bound to the types of lovers her father had chosen. If I understood her right, that was because one had polio and the other was mentally retarded. She laughed heartily when she told me one was named Hamid, "thankful" in Arabic. "What does he have to be thankful for?" she said. We talked more about religion and I told her I didn't believe in Allah; she laughed uncontrollably as she described the punishments that awaited me.

Our first taste of Dakhla was its smell. Before dawn, as a police officer probed us with his flashlight and recorded our professed occupations, I wondered if the whole city stank of rotting fish. Miles away Abderzak, whom we met later, used the faint glow on the horizon to get ready for work. If he hadn't done so already, he pulled on a pair of nylon pants, a pair of jeans, and a third pair with more holes than pant.
The police signaled us on. We had driven nearly 1,000 miles along the N1 highway to get there, through a militarized country where army checkpoints were among the only signs of life among endless sand. After talking with locals, we envisioned Dakhla as a quaint seaside town. We had dared to hope that we would find a clean hotel with modern amenities. The rising sun revealed little besides crumbled buildings and wind-ravaged signs.
We found Abderzak that afternoon on our way to the ocean. Acres of trash on the outskirts of the city slowed our walk and we noticed the figure of a man in the distance, leaning against the wind with a shovel in hand. "As-salaamu Alaikum," I greeted him in Arabic and tried in English to ask him his name. He reached for a wad of tinfoil and unwrapped a small glop of red meat which he offered us. I signaled No thank you. I pointed to myself and said my name. I pointed at Jen and said hers. I pointed at him and he pointed back with the food.
I changed course and asked him to show me what he was doing. I picked up a pickaxe and he showed me where to strike to lodge something free from the rubble of concrete and packed garbage. A few pieces crumbled and I tossed them through a screen nearby. He even showed me how much he got for work - about $5 a day if I understood him. I returned to the name game. He reached for his food.

Hitchhiking in the makings of a sandstorm on the outskirts of Dakhla, we got picked up in a five-seat Toyota with seven passengers already on board. I shared the front passenger seat with my sister and another man. Four hours later, at the border, it was all I could do to get my legs moving again. A Tuareg guide picked us up there and guided us through five miles of land mine-covered No mans land, informing us that two French visitors had been killed there earlier in the year.
At the entrance shack to Mauritania, we bought $10 entry visas and drew a detailed map of the US on the wall for border patrol agents curious about Florida and, curiously, Ohio. We stayed one night in Nouadhibou, then hitched a ride south on a road that wasn't on our map.
We took off at 50 mph from a herd of goats in the middle of town. Our driver planned the angle of his turns to within inches of fruit stands, donkey carts and pedestrians.
Just as Jen whispered to me her growing weariness of Maghrebian music, the driver switched tapes. An imam came on, yelling, moaning and hovering on guttural "h's" and "g's." We stopped suddenly in the midst of sand dunes. Everyone got out. The driver walked furthest away. The folds of his white garment spilled onto orange sand as he knelt to pray.

While wandering a stretch of clean, white sand beach, the first we had seen on our trip, Jen and I came across a group of Senegalese fishermen, struggling together against a rope that was longer than any I'd ever seen. We joined in the fray, pulling in cadence, without a clue as to what we were dragging. Half an hour later, the rope still stretched far out to sea.
Another group, rope in hand, closed in on us from further down the beach and it was only as the rope turned to net that I realized we were pulling in the same thing. Pandemonium broke out as fish started flying, donkey carts stampeded in from the horizon, and up came a huge net with what must have been every breathing, swimming thing from a square mile of ocean.

Today we left Bamako after an anything but unusual wait of 3 1/2 hours at the bus station. We couldn't wander far from the rickety bench where we waited half in and half out of the scorching sun because we didn't know when the bus would fill up and leave. Any sign of discomfort on our part was met with emphatic assurance of imminent departure from random bystanders, some just walking by. So we just sat there, or, sort of balanced there, staring blankly at the sandals and cologne being hawked in our faces. I declined when a boy offered to polish my REI sandals. He was followed by a younger kid who looked me over to see if I had any jewelry that needed shining.

The prophetic words of our Swedish friends Spain defined our experience in Senegal. In Morocco, someone stole a water bottle from us in broad daylight, we got scammed at a restaurant, and we came close, I think, to being stoned by a group of unruly kids in Tan-Tan. But in Senegal, it got more personal. A scam artist in Tambacounda stole $40 from us after acting like our friend the whole day. We also caused a knife fight between taxi drivers at the border. And I got pickpocketed at a taxi station, though I didn't lose anything valuable.
We heard things would be better in Mbour, south of the capital Dakar on the coast, and we caught a night bus heading that direction. They drove us out of the city before deciding they didn't want to do the run. Though they gave us our money back, they left us standing in the middle of nowhere at night. We ended up jumping onto the bumper of another bus that was already full and riding, for the first half hour anyway, reaching over two guys to keep a pinch on the bus' rain gutter.
In Mbour a fisherman got a crush on my sister and took us out on his pirogue to go fishing. He wooed her while I fished. I caught almost 30, mostly on a hand line baited with shrimp, and all small.

Hiking into Dogon Country in the dark without a guide, we got lost and ran low on water. We stumbled onto a puddle of water in the middle of the night and filtered it through our shirts to get out the guinea worm, which Senegalese beauty queens had graciously warned us about on billboards in the capital. We put in iodine too. Back on track, we found the road leading down a cliff and into the valley where the Dogon people live. With one airline blanket for bedding, we laid down on top of a dune and slept. Nothing could have prepared us for the landscape we saw in the morning. Here is my journal entry from 5 a.m.:

"Writing, but not quite light enough to see. I can hardly tell ink is coming out. I would use my headlamp if it wasn't for the pink clouds on the horizon. As faint as they are, their color brings life to a shadowy scene of dramatic cliffs behind me, a ridge line with two trees on the horizon, and a valley between them so endless, I feel like I'm looking into eternity.
Now the scene lightens and I can see the features of the escarpment: rainbow roofs, distinct bands and stone-age ruins hanging almost magically 1,000 feet off the ground. The sound of cows, chickens and life in the village below bounces off the wall in a unified, moaning wail. This place would almost certainly be one of Africa's premier climbing destinations if it wasn't for the UNESCO protections in place. The throng of unmolested birds on the cliff give witness: This is Dogon Country."

We left Dogon Country on the backs of dirt bikes and stood on the outskirts of Bandiagara for a ride to Koru in southern Mali. I was feeling sick after taking malaria medicine on an empty stomach and my sister did the work of thumbing down a ride. For the first time on our trip, clouds covered the sky and temperatures were dropping below 100 degrees.
In Europe, AC Milan was taking the field against Liverpool in the Champions League Final as we boarded a crowded bus. We sat near the back where the doors were held together by wire. Our fellow passengers stuck their heads out the paneless windows and gazed at the darkening sky.
In the same hours of the same day that AC Milan made history by beating its third British team in the finals, rain fell in Africa. It drizzled at first and the leading drops burst into steam on impact with the ground. Then the sky opened. Rain poured into the bus from every side. Months' worth of mud from the ceiling dripped on us and our backpacks. The rear doors flapped in the torrent. People laughed and talked to each other in Bambara or Maninka. The oldest lady on the bus huddled on the floor with a bag of rice and a beaming, muddy smile.

There is a land where the desert ends, where people dance spontaneously in the street, where cold water isn't on the same list as santa claus and the tooth farie - I've heard it whispered of but never believed it to be true: Ouagadougou exists. At least, that was our experience at first. We later decided that, much like a whirlpool, the capital in the dead center of Burkina Faso sucks in the same sort of hustlers, scammers, transportation delays and general chaos of its neighbors.

We turned right. We had to. Our minibus had already gone through the gates.
We had just been declined visas at the border to Ghana and ordered to return to Ouagadougou to obtain them, with all due process, from the embassy. The official's shoulders cast a shadow over his entire desk. He sat up in his chair just enough to put his elbows on the desk. He picked up a a pen and slowly turned it with both hands.
"You are wasting your time," he said. Only the pen moved. A bright yellow tassel, almost an inch thick, decorated the corner of a starched uniform stretched without a wrinkly across his barrel chest. "If I wanted to go to America, I couldn't just go to the border and ask for a visa." For the first time on our trip a border patrol agent was speaking to us in English, and plain English at that. I explained that we had gotten visas at every border up to that point. I explained that a friend had told us we could get visas here, that we didn't have enough money to return to the capital because our credit cards didn't work, that we were in a hurry to get to Accra to catch a connecting flight.
"Go back to Ouaga," he said.
We emerged from the cinderblock building in a daze. To our right lay Ghana and the first lush green fields we had seen in 4000 miles. Big, dark green trees beckoned to us from rolling green hills. British buildings - simple, square, two-toned British building without a curve on them - dotted the foreground. Young adults walked around in dark bottoms and white tops with a tight black belt between. Jacaranda flowers scented the moisture in the air.
Burkina Faso lay to our left, along with the money changers that had just short-changed us. To our left was a long bus ride to an embassy with ever-changing operation hours, mysterious processing fees and, with the weekend coming, a total process for which we didn't have the time or money.
We turned right.
By the time we got to our backpacks we were firmly in Ghana. Our entourage assured us things would be okay and, after a discrete interaction with an officer at a check point down the road, we began to believe them. We were anxious, desperate maybe, to get to Accra and away from Africa. In our rush to get out of the system, we became part of the system, but we were in. We were heading home.
A spare couple days on the coast gave us time to canoe a river, go on a canopy walk in the jungle, feed 10-foot crocodiles at a place called Hans' Cottage, and splurge for a nice beach-side condo before flying out.

In Paris, my sister headed for Switzerland and I to Baudrillard. I couldn't find a taxi so I hoofed it four miles out to the airport, only to find that there were no more flights for the day. I had already missed my scheduled flight. Seventy-five Euro rescheduled my flight to the next morning. I went outside and laid down on the grass next to a big clock so I could know when to get up for the shuttle back to town. I got a E30 hotel room, double the price of any over the last six weeks. After I ate $10 worth of McDonald's I fell asleep back in my room. I didn't wink for 15 hours. I awoke to a strange world of soft light, not knowing whether it was the same evening or the next day. I ran out to the reception practically in my underwear. My French didn't exactly come through for me as I tried to ask a hostess what day it was. Then I saw the breakfast buffet. I barely had time to shower before the morning shuttle to the airport. Fourteen hours later - it seemed very sudden - I was back in San Francisco.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Pathos of a Python, Swaziland

Above me was a perfect roof crack; around me, a continent of poverty and war; in front of me, a nightmare.

I reached up to steady a kitchen knife on the dashboard. Light from the big blade bounced across my forehead and I felt the heat.

Orange dust in the wake of our rattling Toyota Corolla shot up and settled on the ashy limbs of squat trees. Black rocks in the gully to our left looked like molten lava.

As far as I could tell, Swaziland hadn’t changed. I had snapshot memories of the small African kingdom from my childhood, a bizarre mental album of cow-dung huts and tin-roofed shanties, a sprawling hospital where my father worked and a morgue, wild animals and tame animals and other animals in between, and a feeling somehow in the midst of it all of being special and safe.

As the child of a mission doctor, I was tolerated almost everywhere and so, while other kids herded cows or sold mangoes for pennies, I ran around with a stick and pretended to be in the special forces. One day, as friends and I raced through the hospital, I stumbled on a bucket of spaghetti in the surgery room—spaghetti that, on second examination, turned out to be relocated stomach worms, still moving.

Now we were going to Mantenga Falls for a picnic. Our knife was just for a pineapple. Bill, my brother, leaned over the steering wheel like a horse jockey.

My family never visited the falls when we lived in Swaziland. We tried once on foot but a group of men by the streambed saw us and started dropping their beers to put on ski masks. They had bush knives. We turned around. They didn't follow.

By the time, a few years later, that the Lonely Planet crew came through, there had been enough strong-arm robbery on the road to warrant a warning in the guidebook. The authors didn't discourage visiting the area but suggested staying in a vehicle.

Bill swung our Toyota around a sharp corner and I noticed a cave in the wall of rocks above the streambed. Twisted vines dangled from the entrance. A deep, zigzagging hand crack split the roof.

“Wait, stop here a second," I said. Perfect splitters had come to mean more to me than just a way to climb insanely overhanging faces. They had been my introduction to climbing and, in turn, American culture.

Hand jams and ring locks were the way an awkward kid of the Swazi middle veld managed to belong in the maelstrom of teenage California. I couldn’t form a good sentence about cars or wakeboards or cereal flavors, but climbing culture was simpler. In climbing, effort was everything.

When I led my first climb (on nuts), most of my pieces wound up on my belayer’s ATC but I finished the climb. As I acquired cams, I dreamt of longer cracks and bigger routes.

When a friend and I climbed the eight-pitch Whodunit (5.9) in Tahquitz our freshman year in college, we fretted over the size of the route till midnight the night before. To maximize our time, we started early in the morning. We lugged two ropes and a load of leaver ‘biners in case we had to rappel, then finished before noon.

Other climbs didn’t go as well. On our first attempt at the Nose on El Cap, we dropped so much gear we had to retreat just to re-rack.

Years later I met Todd Skinner in the Valley, just days, in turned out, before the accident on Leaning Tower. Though he was trying to free Jesus Built My Hotrod (VI A4 5.7), his mind was already on his next project—to find the ultimate roof crack, 50 feet or more, hundreds of feet off the ground.

“Imagine how that would be,” Skinner said, while giving us his leftover barbecued chicken. “Do you know where one might be?"

The cave crack in Swaziland wasn’t quite the free climbing Shangri-La that Skinner had in mind, but its angles were perfect. I hadn’t brought any gear, but it looked like I could solo the start. To finish it, I’d return with a rope.

Two hundred yards from the car, the pearl skull of a Nyala, an antelope with stout, dagger-like horns, greeted me near the base of the rock. I could have guessed from its position that it had bounced down from the cave but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time.

I grabbed the woody vines, tested them, and climbed up 10 feet into the cave on its right side. I moved into the cave’s center and out on the edge to check out the crack. Its geometric doglegs drew my eyes back into the hole, where it began on a pile of sharp rocks.

I mimed the sequence and imagined how far I could reach off each twist in the crack. It stayed horizontal for 25 feet, the last five feet jutting over the wash. Where it turned the lip, a lattice of vines and tree roots clogged the best jams.

I was imagining how I’d clean it when I first noticed the gravelly sound at my feet. I didn’t hear it so much as feel it in my stomach. I looked down.

Time slowed. My eyes widened as I tried to take in all 20 feet of the snake in front of me. The massive body writhed. Its head hovered. Three feet off the ground, one python eye watched my every move.

Snake experts say that a rock python responds in one of two ways to intruders. If it hisses and heaves, it’s angry and wants to scare you off. If it’s silent, it’s thinking about eating you.

I yelled to Bill and my sister-in-law, Erin, "There’s a t-wen-ty-foot-py-thon right in front of me!" My hands floated by my neck for no explicable reason.

"Where?" Bill shouted back.

"Right-in-front-of-me!" I didn't move. I stood helpless at the entrance to the cave, blocked off from the vines that were my only exit. The snake didn’t move.

I yelled again to my brother. He was reaching for the pineapple knife. The snake didn’t move.

I imagined what would happen if it did move. I pictured its jaws springing open, slow-motion like in a National Geographic film, hurtling toward me. I imagined being crushed and swallowed, engulfed in blood and guts and pieces of Nyala. Still the snake didn’t move.

I wondered what it would mean if I was killed by a python on my soul-searching trek back to my childhood home. I felt chagrinned for wanting to climb in a place like Swaziland, where most people spend their days battling poverty and disease.

I remembered the worms in the hospital, saw the patient’s feet. The curtain was drawn in the surgical unit but I could tell from the commotion that they had just removed that mountain of worms from her stomach. I wondered if she had survived.

Without notice, the snake swung around and poured into a basketball-sized hole. Adrenaline animated my limbs, and I dashed past the snake’s retreating tail and fled down the vines.

I’ve often wondered how close that python came to attacking me. Was it hungry? Angry? I ask myself why it didn’t strike. Maybe it thought I was too big. Perhaps my brother scared it. Maybe it thought I was special.

printed in Rock and Ice magazine, January, 2008