Saturday, September 20, 2008

The power of speech

The silent duo, Rijard and his brother Danny, drove us to the airport this morning for our flight back to Johannesburg, en route to Malawi.
“It is groundhog day,” I said to Nigel, as I buckled my seat belt.
We had just spent seven days with the two young men, as Rijard drove us across Madagascar and as far up the east coast as roads, and bridges, would allow.
Yet we knew nothing about them, except that they may be brothers, that Rijard is 29 and Danny thinks he is 26.
Rijard is single and Danny has two children, a three-year-old and a one-year-old.
Oh, and Danny has something to do with a patisserie.
We never did find out why Danny had come along on the trip. “Security”, explained Njara, the travel agent, but security against what we wondered as the most frightening things we encountered during our trip were a few mosquitoes and a couple of raw pizzas.
We tried hard to communicate with them, but we know only three words in Malagasy and we soon discovered our school French was of little use.
Rijard managed to tell me he couldn’t understand anything I said because of my thick Scottish accent and Nigel fared little better when he tried to engage him in conversation about football and lemurs.
His English was very basic. His cheery “fine?” each morning meant “did you have a good night’s sleep”.
“Money for bed” meant he needed more cash for a hotel room so he too could have a good night’s sleep.
Occasionally he would point out something of interest: “sea” as we passed the Indian Ocean ;“national park” as we drew up at the entrance to Andisabe; Madagascar’s most popular reserve and “thank you” when Nigel gave him more cash, but for the most of our time together there was silence.
It was an unproductive silence as I was desperate to ask Rijard questions about his beautiful country.
Many of them may seem like silly, even pointless questions, such as “what time do the shops usually open in the morning?” and “do Malagasy men help out with housework?”
My particular favourite, after seven days of Rijard dodging large lorries and over-taking on blind corners was: “why do Malagasy men drive so recklessly?”
Facetious maybe, but it is exactly this kind of trivia that helps me get a feel for a country.
I can turn to a guide book for the hard facts about a country’s flora, fauna and visitor attractions, but I want to know more - what makes people tick? What they think of their government? What is the most popular TV programme?  Their favourite tipple?
I will be forever grateful to Peter Potani, who, three years ago, greeted me off a plane to Malawi, on my first ever trip to his country and Africa.
He took a few days to adjust to my informality and constant stream of questions, but by the end of the week he had taught me more about his country’s language, culture and customs than any number of FCO briefings or guide books.
During the course of that first week we also became firm friends, a friendship that has strengthened with each visit to Malawi.
In two weeks time Nigel and I are going to his wedding. He and his partner Debra are now a part of our lives, our family in Malawi, and all because we shared a language.
Never underestimate the power of speech.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Almost a bridge too far

As we turned yet another corner on the long, and very winding road to Foulpointe on the east coast of Madagascar, we had to swerve to avoid a single file of six lorries, all bearing the legend THB.
“That is a helluva lot of beer,” I laughed. THB stands for Three Horses Beer, Madagascar’s favourite tipple. It is a pleasant lager, very welcome on a hot day, or when the red wine is so terrible it is undrinkable, even by our standards.
We soon found out why the lorries were stationary. The middle of the pontoon bridge, the only access across the river, was submerged in a foot of water.
A gaggle of men, watched by a horde of small boys, was attempting to refloat the sunken sections, but they didn’t seem to be having much success.
The river looked impassable.
“Nous returnons a une autre hotel,” Nigel said in very bad French. Our driver, young Rijard and his silent companion, Danny, decided otherwise.
“Non, non,” replied Rijard as he edged the car forward, ignoring exhortations by us, and the small group of lorry drivers by the bank, to stay put.
He stopped by the river bank.
“What do we do now?” I asked, of no-one in particular, which is why I probably got no response.
I waited, patiently, for at least ten seconds, then jumped out of the car and on to the pontoon.
It was made up of large sections, which together, were obviously strong enough to support the steady stream of traffic that made its way daily to the beach resorts. 
The middle section however had recently sunk at least a foot into the filthy river and as I approached I could see two men struggling to refloat it with a long hose attached to an engine.
I turned back to tell Rijard that the bridge was definitely impassable for now, only to see Nigel and Danny come towards me, ahead of Rijard who was driving the car on to the pontoon.
“Non, non,” I cried, in vain. He drove on, stubbornly refusing to even acknowledge me, and before I could roll up my trousers to wade across, he was on the other side, followed quickly by a string of taxi-brousses (Madagascar mini-buses) and saloon cars.
I took off my sandals and plunged into the submerged section of the bridge. The water was dirty grey, very dirty grey, thick with unidentified vegetation and no doubt human and animal faeces and urine, but at least it wasn’t cold.
My paddle across was accompanied by shrieks of laughter from small boys, who obviously found it amusing that the vahuza (white person) was getting her feet wet.
I felt a rather exaggerated sense of triumph as I landed on the other side where I waited for Nigel, and the still silent Danny. They had taken what I considered to be the more dangerous route and had walked along the edge of the pontoon.
Rijard shrugged off our compliments on his driving skills. “It is twenty kilometres to Foulpointe,” he said with a new authority, clearly pleased that he had got us safely across the river.
I settled back to enjoy the last few miles when my right leg started to itch. “Oh my god, I have bilharzia,” I said, grabbing the guide book to check the symptoms of this “nasty and debilitating disease” caused by parasitical pond snail, which worms it way under its victims skin.
“I am sure you haven’t,” said Nigel, who is used to my daily announcements of impending sickness and death. Yesterday I had malaria, tomorrow I will have heart failure, today it is bilharzia.
As I bent down to scratch the itch, three large spots appeared. “I have been bitten,” I said, stating the obvious. 
“See I told you I had bilharzia,” quietly satisfied that I was suffering from a near fatal tropical disease. Either that, or an insect bite.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A slow train to Durban

As we boarded the train to Durban we looked in horror at our “coupe” for two. This tiny compartment was to be our home for the next two days, and while we weren’t expecting the Orient Express, this claustrophobic space, with barely enough room for our luggage, let alone my fat bum, was far too small for comfort.
“I can’t stay in this,” I shrieked, and for once the usually calm Nigel shared my concerns.
“You are right, we can’t spend 48 hours in here, we would kill each other,” he said cheerfully as he went off in search of someone in charge.
Just as the train was about to set off he tracked down the deputy manager. He was very reassuring.
“Of course madame, sir, I can see there is no room for you. I think I will be able to get you bigger carriage, but it will not be easy, no it will not be easy.”
Quick translation: “The train is half empty madame, there are plenty of bigger carriages but I will make you sweat a little bit, so that my tip will be even more generous once I move you.”
And so it came to pass. After moving us to one of the many empty four-berth compartments, he disappeared, returning thirty minutes later with a sombre tale about how he was having difficulty pacifying the passenger who had, allegedly, booked the very compartment in which we were now comfortably settled.
“I told him you needed it more than he did,” he grimaced. “I am sure he will calm down by the time we get to Durban”. Nigel looked worried.
“Should we pay you just now for an upgrade, will that help?” I asked, not-so innocently.
Mr Deputy Manager smiled yes. Nigel passed him 200 Rand, the maximum sum we had agreed earlier we would pay for the privilege of not suffocating.
Mr Deputy Manager quickly pocketed the cash and gave me a cheerful thumbs up.
“Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you madame,” he smiled as he closed the door. We never saw him again, nor did we need to.
Shosholoza Meyl's Trans-Oranje train from Cape Town to Durban is not nearly as luxurious as the famous Blue Train, but it is very comfortable and very good value for money. A one way tourist ticket is around £35.
We had brought along two bottles of South African Pinotage - £2.50 each from Woolworths, M&S’s South African cousin - to accompany the rather basic, but adequate, on-board meals.
We also had three bars of Lindt chocolate, some fruit and a few good books to satisfy all our appetites, so snug in our vivid purple bunks we sat back and enjoyed the South African countryside as it rolled past.
At night we were lulled to sleep by the movement of the train, and in the morning we enjoyed a hot shower while watching the sunrise over the plains.
Our journey took us through the arid desert of the Karoo, past the De Beers Diamond mine in Kimberley, across the Orange Free State via Bloemfontein and into Natal.
We passed the spot near Estcourt where in 1899 young war correspondent Winston Churchill was taken prisoner by the Boers and stopped at Pietermaritzburg the station where Mahatma Ghandi was thrown off a train in 1893
When we reached Durban we disembarked reluctantly, but refreshed and ready for the next leg – the mysteries of Madagascar - but first a night by the magnificent Indian Ocean lay ahead.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Mother City

Cape Town is a revelation, or as much as it can be after three days in my sick bed with a chest infection, caught no doubt on a plane. Not to mention the ferocious storms that battered the city for most of our short stay – the worst in seven years according to the media.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect of the Mother City, so called because it is where European got their first toe-hold in Africa; lots of white millionaire ex-pats I think, and there are certainly plenty of those.
On the drive to Cape Point we passed scores of very expensive, heavily secured homes, were passed several times by very impatient Porsche drivers and gaped in awe at the scores of (white) surfers who, on a wet Monday afternoon, clearly had little to do with their time but fling themselves at the mercy of the Atlantic sea.
But the city is much more than a playground for rich, white folks.
It is a lively cosmopolitan place, with high-rise Art Deco buildings that would look at home in New York, great restaurants and a stunning waterfront. Eating moules and frites while watching lumbering seals enjoy a Sunday afternoon snooze was definitely a highlight of our stay.
Others were the penguins at Boulders Bay; standing at Cape Point, which seemed for a moment like the end of the world and enjoying tapas at Fork – twice.
But this is also a city with a past, and a challenging future.
We tried three times to make the trip to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, but failed because of the bad weather.
There is a modest, but heart-breaking museum near the national parliament which tells the terrible story of the forced removal of the residents of District Six to shanty towns outside the city centre. 
One of its exhibits is a park bench that bears the sign: Europeans Only. This ordinary piece of street furniture is a haunting reminder of the capacity of ordinary humans to do evil.
And there is mile after mile of poor suburbs, where the vast majority of Cape Town residents live in homes that are often nothing more than tin shacks.
It will be a long time before all South Africans will share in the wealth that is so conspicuous in this beautiful city, but that day will come. It has to.
“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is a protection of a fundamental right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
Nelson Mandela.