A Road Trip to RememberSep 30, 2023
Twenty years ago, I crossed Africa from North to South by road. It took eight months and many adventures. Some days were easy, spent in the shade, resting and absorbing the life around. Some days were hard, with offroad driving and camping. But one night was the hardest and at the same time the most unforgettable part of my African adventure.
It’s like this in life – when you do something that you love, you will love the whole experience no matter how hard it gets. And today I still look back to that night and smile. It was the night we spend on top of a green truck, crossing the border from Mali to Guinea in West Africa. (fragment from my book 'Through Dust and Dreams')
GREEN trucks bring bad luck. Now I know this, but that afternoon the green truck looked exotic, peaceful and even funny. A journey by truck? Why not? After all, I was still thrilled to be discovering all these new things: life as a backpacker! That morning we had said goodbye to Peter and left Tambacounda, and I had survived my first bush taxi – “wasn’t that bad,” I thought. We were in Kédougou, the border town, and about to head for the border crossing into Guinea on a route that the Lonely Planet guide did not recommend. We only read that paragraph some ten days afterwards.
We had travelled the whole day in the small minibus loaded with dozens of people, two people sharing one seat normally, plus countless kids. In Africa children don’t count as passengers, since they don’t pay a fare, so they could be loaded up and considered as individual luggage as long as their mothers or anybody else managed to keep them on their laps. There were many such kids in the van and I wondered how they could be so quiet considering the crowded environment. Richard and I got the last seats at the back, and despite the exhaust fumes making their way through the rotten floor, I found the trip quite bearable.
We had frequent stops on the way and they served all sorts of purposes. People would get off and move around, trying to get their joints back into their original positions; men would smoke; some would eat, and children would run around. Then everybody would somehow mysteriously fit back into the car, silence would fall and we would all wait for another stop.
We arrived at our destination eventually, by sunset and we went into a small wooden hut to eat something. I was stressed and tense not knowing what would come next and asked Richard several times what we were to do.
“Relax,” he said, lighting himself a cigarette after finishing the meat and bread he had bought. “Just relax,” he repeated. “We’ll find something.”
He looked like he knew what he was talking about and the confidence in his voice and the slowness of his movements made me somehow feel at ease. I trusted him when he said that we would find something.
We did, and it was that green truck that was to take us to the other side of the border into Guinea and that was currently loaded with countless sacks of merchandise. The driver told us they would take some people on top of everything else in the open back of the truck, and that the journey would last for the whole night. I thought it wouldn’t be too bad, given that we could lie down on the sacks and perhaps even take the sleeping bag out. Almost a first-class ticket! But Richard looked at the truck in silence and concluded with a flash of intuition what was to come.
“This is going to be a hard ride,” he said, and went to find some cigarettes to help him survive the trip. “Just in case I really need one.”
I soon learned that Richard had given up smoking – or better to say he was in the process of giving up smoking, constantly. He still needed a cigarette occasionally: after a tiring journey for instance, or during a tiring journey, or after a good meal, or when he was happy, or when he was bored and had nothing better to do, or just because he would give up smoking another day. Because he had given up, he usually bought just one cigarette or just two, and then one again, and this technique worked well for not being truly aware of how many cigarettes he really smoked in a day.
We checked the map again: 120 km was the distance we needed to cover to the town on the other side of the border. In Europe this would have been one hour on the highway; here it was a bit longer but it didn’t look that bad. In the meantime, the green truck was loaded with all sorts of things while we hung around: white sacks with oranges, rice, some mattresses (soft to sit on, I thought), cooking pots (sharp edges and therefore to be avoided): they were all meant to reach a market in Mali-ville at the end of our journey.
When all these goods were on we had a final look at the space left: a bit tight but not too bad considering there were only about 20 others to share it with.
By nightfall we were already moving and it looked like everything would be fine. For the last two hours we had had a pretty comfy ride, and we even managed to arrange the sleeping bags on top of some soft sacks. I was looking forward to getting some sleep, but my hopes disappeared as soon as the truck stopped outside a village and we saw a huge crowd running towards us.
“Oh no,” I thought. “I hope they don’t imagine they can all fit in.”
They did. People climbed up and everybody fought for a place. We tried to preserve our space and the soft sacks we had arranged for the night. We fought fiercely, stubbornly refusing to move our feet and confine ourselves to a smaller space while every free inch around was filled in an instant. People squatted everywhere: there was not enough space to sit or lie down.
After the whole surface was covered and the white of the sacks underneath could no longer be seen, more people were still climbing in. There was simply no more space, I thought, looking around at the crammed, squatting figures. We soon discovered that the concept of space is arbitrary, though, and a 15 m2 surface could look crowded with 20 people lying on it as well as with 150 squatting, and there was always some more space that could be grabbed.
After everybody had found a spot it was the kids’ turn to be loaded. They were passed from hand to hand, lifted on top of the truck where the driver held a torch (it was already dark outside) and tried to find more places: ayyyy! He had found a place where he could squeeze in another one, just between the feet of that man and the elbows of the fat mamma at his side. Yes, a crying two-year-old baby could be fitted there, and the baby disappeared. Another one; kids cried but miraculously shut up as soon as they were found a place. Women tried to have their own kids nearby but sometimes they ended up caring for someone else’s baby. It wasn’t a problem there. We were all one big family with a common purpose: to cross the border into Guinea.
Despite the struggle and Richard shouting, “No, you won’t fit a crying kid between my knees, move the torch away from me,” we had lost most of our space and found ourselves squatting like everyone else. The crowd around us was like a huge anaconda, and every time you breathed out you found that another inch of the space you had was lost: the crowd had conquered it and what was taken would never be given back.
I felt the pressure of a woman’s back on my chest as she squatted in front of me and I felt I couldn’t breathe.
“You OK?” Richard had probably seen the imminent faint in my eyes. “Let’s try to rearrange and find another position.”
I managed to push her a bit but my leg was trapped somewhere far away from the rest of my body. I waited until the pain told me my bone was about to be broken. My leg was lost somewhere under two sacks of rice, some kids and a fat mamma, and it was now being pressed against a sharp edge.
“Now! Let’s try to move!”
In a joint effort we pushed away the bodies that covered us everywhere. “Ayyyyyyyy!” the crowd protested. After all, in the last half-hour everybody had found a survival position for themselves. The truck’s movements had somehow equally distributed the load, as when you shake a box with lots of things inside and each one naturally finds its own place and fills its own space; you cannot disturb the naturally created order just because your leg was about to be broken.
We managed to push the angry faces a bit and found ourselves in a slightly different position, as uncomfortable as the first one but at least we had changed the pressure points. My leg was now free so our aim was achieved. Richard felt he needed a cigarette. He had only one arm free, so he managed to find it but I had to help him out with lighting it: his other arm was caught somewhere, under something; unreachable. Arms and legs and heads and faces all melted together. The night had fallen, the kids had stopped crying and the burning spot of a cigarette end stood out on top of an overloaded green truck.
Some hours later we had to change position again. I had already given up worrying about the small bag containing my camera and sunglasses, buried under feet and sacks. I didn’t know where it was but it didn’t matter any more: there was no hope I could get it back with the contents unbroken. Richard had somehow managed to pull out from under the feet of an old man sitting beside him the meat sandwich he had saved for dinner, and was happily enjoying what was left of it.
We attempted another joint effort to move: the pain had become unbearable again. We changed the pressure points once more, and this time we found ourselves sitting on the edge of the truck, half outside, and the sharp metal edge wasn’t that comfortable. But a new position was always better. For a while. Until bones started aching again. And then it was time for another move. There was nowhere we could go next, however. Jump out? It was as if the huge anaconda made of human bodies had rejected us: two white faces who didn’t belong there, who should have travelled in luxury cars as all other white tourists do, and so it pushed us slowly but surely away.
I felt a hand gently touching my hair. I looked up and a little girl of about five or six with big, round eyes smiled at me. With the only arm she could move, she was petting my hair. She was squeezed between Richard and a fat mamma, could obviously hardly breathe but she was smiling. Maybe we were the first white people she had ever seen. She kept on smiling for hours in a row and her big, round eyes were shining into the night. When I pulled her on to my knee, she put her arms around me and closed her eyes. She was happy and I could smell the baby scent of her hair, neatly done up in small braids. Despite the dust and dirt of the roads and the lack of water or bathrooms, people are surprisingly clean here, I thought, and looking around, even in the darkness of the night, I could see that my clothes and Richard’s were the dirtiest.
“Ayyyy!” Richard’s head bounced back suddenly. A branch had hit him in the face. The road was narrow, bordered by trees. It wasn’t a problem when we were squatting like everybody else, but now that we were sitting on the edge of the truck we were somehow higher up than the rest of the people and more exposed – and therefore more inclined to hit branches or anything else in our way.
“It’s bleeding,” he said after a while. I didn’t think it would be too bad, but nevertheless I switched on my torch and checked his face: to my shock it was flooded with blood and it looked like half his nose had gone! The light of the torch helped us see how much blood he had lost in the last 10 minutes: blood on his T-shirt, trousers, my T-shirt, the people around; blood everywhere.
There wasn’t much we could do about it. I tried in vain to reach for the first aid kit, buried in the backpack somewhere in some corner of this overcrowded truck, but there was no chance we could get to it. More blood spilled out, on to his clothes and my clothes, while we desperately attempted to keep our balance as we sat on the sharp metal edge of the truck.
Luckily the wound stopped bleeding after some time, just as we reached the border post. Down from the truck, I checked his face once again: there was a big stain of blood in the middle of his face that had started to dry. The dust had probably helped stop the bleeding and a crust was starting to form: what could we do about it? Break it open again and try to clean it?
There was chaos around us: people jumped down from the truck and we understood it was pointless to try and find our bags or Richard’s lost sandal. Barefoot and stained with blood, he limped in total darkness towards the barracks of the officials, heading to the place where a huge queue of people was already forming.
Eventually our passports were stamped: we were officially in No Man’s Land. We decided not to get back into the truck. Richard had lost a lot of blood and was exhausted. I couldn’t even think about the sharp, uncomfortable edge any longer. We decided to try and put up the tent for the night and then deal with the whole situation the next day. If need be it would be better to walk for a few days, all the way to Mali-ville!
We found the driver and explained that we wanted to get out, but he didn’t consent to leave us there.
“Come with me, quickly!” he whispered, and he took us by the hand and walked us through crowds of people waiting to have their cards stamped, a bunch of soldiers, and some other trucks parked just outside the border point. He stopped in front of another truck that we could barely see in the darkness.
“This one will be better,” he added, and before he left he spoke to the driver for a while, pointing to the two of us.
“This truck does not go to where you want to go. The driver will leave you in a village and I will come back for you, do you understand? I will come to pick you up, just wait there!” he repeated in a confident voice before he disappeared.
I understood his French but I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. It was clear that he had got rid of us and passed us on to this second truck. That one seemed a bit less crowded. We looked at each other and we decided to take the chance: it couldn’t possibly get any worse.
The new truck was still crowded but we could lie down now. We managed to get the sleeping bag out to create a sort of cover. This new spot was a pretty comfortable one – comfort suddenly had a different meaning for us; we could lie down and we were lucky enough to have some soft sacks underneath us. We got some other sacks as pillows, wrapped the sleeping bag around the two of us and Richard’s wound was looking a lot better. We were lying down with our legs stretched out and it felt great after hours and hours of squatting.
Suddenly I felt someone was trying to move my feet and I wondered whether they wanted to steal my boots. If they did, there was nothing I could do to prevent them: my feet weren’t within reach, twisted somewhere far away. But no, it was just an attempt by someone to get themselves more comfortably seated. Richard’s feet were also moved and somebody placed a pot with sharp edges on our legs. “Ayyy!”
They gave up eventually and we were back to the newly discovered notion of comfort. Richard felt better and told me about his other travels, about other hard truck rides. Twenty-four hours had passed since I met him the night before, and if I didn’t count the dinner we had had in London some time ago, I felt it was the fastest friendship I had ever formed. On top of that truck, we were lying one next to the other and my head rested on his arm. We talked and he smoked and it felt like we had known each other for ages.
A lad squatting next to us was sound asleep, judging by his snoring. His hands were grabbing the metal edge of the truck somewhere above our heads. He lost control over his arm and dropped it exactly on Richard’s newly cut nose. “Ayyyy!” That must have been painful. Blood again. The guy woke up, swung back his arm and fell asleep again. “Ayyyy!” again. Richard’s wound had reopened and it started bleeding again.
He tried to figure out whether he should laugh or cry. The third time he got angry. There was nothing he could do though, nowhere he could move, and he couldn’t prevent the man from falling asleep again with his arms grabbing the edge of the truck. We spent the next hour watching a hand that slowly slid away and, finally, invariably hit the wound on Richard’s nose no matter how much he tried to figure out another position for his head.
Just before dawn, the truck stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was still night and we hadn’t reached our destination. We didn’t know where we were but the driver asked us to get out. He then threw our bags into the middle of the road and waved for to us to get off:
“The other truck will arrive to pick you up.”
“Tout de suite.”
Tout de suite or maintenant were two favourite words of the Africans. They could mean anything from half an hour to several days.
Some other people got off as well, then some of the sacks were unloaded and the truck left.
We looked around and couldn’t figure out what to do next. It was dark, as dark as it usually gets just before sunrise, but we could tell we were in a village, with small huts around the main road.
Too tired to put up the tent, we just opened it, threw it to the ground and tried to pull it as far away from the road as we could. The last thing we wanted was to be run over by another truck in the middle of the night.
“Do you want the sleeping bag or the liner?”
I would have preferred the sleeping bag but it was his, after all, so I decided the liner would do. All I was feeling was a sensation of weakness spreading to my bones – I was less bothered by the cold outside than by the total lack of strength I felt, and to this day I don’t know whether I fainted or simply fell instantaneously asleep as soon as I lay down on the ground.
I did freeze in the end, though, and about two hours later I started trembling and eventually had to open my eyes. The sun had risen in the meantime but it was still early morning.
As soon as my sleepy eyes grew accustomed to the light, the first thing I saw was a chicken. It was watching me carefully and it didn’t move. It was standing on my leg. I moved and the chicken jumped off and went away to mind its own business; it joined its mates and stuck its beak in the dusty ground, looking for some food. There was a bunch of them in the middle of the courtyard in which we were lying.
Next to me, Richard opened his eyes as well. My sudden argument with the chicken must have woken him up.
“Are you cold?” He could probably see it on my face.
I nodded. I had two liners but they were hardly doing the job, and my thin T-shirt underneath didn’t help either.
“OK, you take the sleeping bag and I’ll take the liners: let’s switch.”
I nodded again and said nothing. I was desperately grateful though. We switched, and I slid into the sleeping bag that still carried the warmth of his body. I gave him my liners and tried not to feel guilty for the totally unfavourable switch; it was he who suggested it, after all.
I was warm again and it felt good, but I couldn’t sleep for much longer. The scene around me soon became too animated.
The head of the family – we found out later – was a tailor. He had an old, noisy iron-cast sewing machine and he had already taken up his chair and started to sew in one corner of the courtyard, under a huge mango tree: this was his shop. Three women, probably all his wives, were lighting a giant fire to prepare breakfast and all the subsequent meals of the day, and his kids were running around half-naked. They seemed unimpressed by the two white bodies lying in the middle of their courtyard.
Richard got up and I did too. We went to him, said hello and introduced ourselves. He smiled and answered in French and told us we were welcome in his house. Nobody asked us what we were doing there, but we felt we had to explain that we were waiting for a truck. A green truck that was supposed to come and pick us up tout de suite. The master of the house smiled and nodded.
“If they said they will come, you must wait.”
We waited and watched the family go on with their daily life, and the sun came up and we had a tour of the small village: we even went up to the local school. The building had no windows and a bunch of kids inside suddenly stopped their lessons and surrounded us, smiling. The teacher smiled as well and told us he was honoured to show us around. The kids were writing on small wooden boards using chalk. No paper, no pens, no books. The only thing they had was a teacher and a wooden room with no door or windows and a roof made of straw.
By noon we had found a small shop and bought some bread, then we sat down under the same tree in the courtyard of our host and started reading our books – actually Richard’s books, who, in addition to his Lonely Planet bible, carried two or three reading books that he periodically exchanged with other travellers.
The truck did arrive in the end, as mysterious and unexpected as when it had left the previous night. It stopped just outside the gates of the courtyard we were in, then a guy jumped down, came to us and told us they had come to pick us up. And even though we had no idea if it was the same truck we had left or another one that just looked the same, it seemed like a good idea to trust them. We loaded our bags and as we climbed up, realised with surprise that more than half the people were gone. The others were crammed in at the sides and all the space in the middle was taken by two bodies lying down: two injured men. As the truck started moving, a woman next to me told me that they had had an accident last night after they had left us – they had hit a tree and several people were injured. Some others got off in other villages on the way and now we were heading on to Mali-ville, our final destination and the biggest town around, in search of a hospital for the two injured guys.
The truck went up and down, clouds of dust settled all over us, people moved and bumped into each other and the two guys screamed every now and then during the hours that followed. Eventually we reached the town and pulled up into the main square. The injured were unloaded, and as they passed by I could see the open wound and the broken leg bone of one of them.
Finally out of the truck, I felt I had to throw up and I moved slowly towards the wall of the hospital bordering the street. I tried to regain my balance but I felt I must sit down at once otherwise I would just fall.
“Get away from there!” Richard shouted as I slid down the wall. “They always piss on walls here!”
With my last ounce of strength, I moved away and sat down in the middle of the road, surrounded by dust. Richard sat as well and we looked at each other. In the light of the late afternoon, the stains of blood on his T-shirt seemed to fade under the dust that the last two hours on the back of that truck had covered us with; new dust on top of old dust from last night on top of blood and dust from yesterday, all melting together and sinking deep into the fabric.
“We have arrived,” he smiled. “It’s not so bad, is it?”
No, it was not so bad. The trip took 24 hours, his nose was half gone, the truck we had travelled with hit a tree and injured a dozen people and I had just had a close view of the broken bones of one of them. But we were fine and alive and had made it to the other side of the border. Maybe it wasn’t bad at all.
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