HURRAH IMPROMPTU TRIPS. A few weeks back one of my Nairobi-based friends mentioned that she had a six-month multi-entry visa from a work trip to Kinshasa and Kisangani, and did anyone want to help her make use of it by climbing Nyiragongo Volcano? Some friends of mine did the same trip last year and the pictures looked AMAZING so I was like HELL YES and then (quietly, secretly) started fretting, because as you may recall, last year I tried and failed to mount an assault on Karthala, a volcano in Comoros, and so what if I tried again and failed again but this time in front of friends thus a) embarrassing myself, and b) inconveniencing them when I inevitably had to be stretchered off the mountainside? But then the trip took on a life of its own, with three more friends / friends-of-friends committing, and then we set dates and applied for visas and booked tours and I borrowed a bagworth of hiking gear off a friend (who was much more sensibly going to Istanbul for Easter weekend) and I was borne along by the momentum. And so on Easter Friday, the day after I came back from Watamu, we flew to Kigali, and the next day we piled into a car and were driven to Goma.
Goma was fascinating and I wish we’d had the chance to spend more time there. We stayed at the Caritas Guesthouse, right on Lake Kivu, which I’d last seen from Gisenyi in 2015. Goma’s main claim to fame, aside from its regular bouts of M23-related insecurity, is the fact that it was nearly swallowed by lava when Nyiragongo last erupted, in 2002. Relatively few people were killed (according to our fixer, Emmanuel, those who died were mostly either holed up in a church that promised to pray the lava away, or looting a fuel station that then exploded), and the volcano is now, apparently, much better monitored so there will be early warning for the next eruption. But volcano remnants are still very much in evidence, in the form of pitted lava rocks piled up by the side of the road, or used in construction.
The volcano had been our main aim, but despite how short our time was, various logistical arrangements meant that we ended up with a day in hand, and Virunga was offering half-price gorilla trekking for Easter (didn’t know gorillas cared), so we took advantage of that and on Sunday spent a couple of hours bouncing about through achingly picturesque countryside (conical volcanoes hidden in the mists; exquisitely-kept terraced farms in the foothills) en route to Bukima. This was something that I’d been wanting to do for years and years, and it was absolutely incredible – and, as we agreed at the time, intermittently terrifying. Unlike what I’ve heard about gorilla “trekking” elsewhere, this was a proper, strenuous hike through the rainforest, two hours of slogging uphill, with our guides hacking through the bush for the last ten or fifteen minutes before we were encouraged through a gap in the greenery and suddenly there was a gorilla RIGHT THERE OH MY ACTUAL GOD. We got to hang out with a family group of nine gorillas – including three silverbacks – for an hour, and it felt like an immense and unwarranted privilege, interspersed with periods of intense terror when one of the silverbacks would lumber to his feet, fix us with a stern eye and lurch in our direction. We had been assured that in these cases our guides would know what to do, and were particularly adept at identifying when the gorillas were just playing (oh god) and when they were actually angry (OHGODOHGOD); Frederic, our main dude, generally responded to any potential gorilla aggression with pas de probleme, pas de probleme, and then: prend un photo! which we mostly did, when our hands weren’t shaking too much.
And then Monday was VOLCANO DAY. I had spent the previous few days silently performing my affirmations (you failed at Karthala because you were trying to do a two-day hike in one day! It’s only 8km (albeit with a 1500m elevation climb)! It’s all psychological!), and with my friends giving me very useful encouragement and tough love. In the event, I would by no means say it was easy (my thighs still ache slightly, four days after coming down), but it could not have been more worth it. This blog post gives an excellent description of the route (I may have read it slightly obsessively before departure), and the trek is planned incredibly well, in terms of the way that it’s broken up. I found it reasonably tough but OK right up to the second half of the penultimate stretch, when a very heavy rainstorm and the unrelenting steepness really began to get to me – but by that point I was a good three-quarters of the way there, and so there was no way I was going to give up. I was encouraged to the end of that stretch by one of my friends waiting uphill from me with a bite of Snickers in her hand, which she smashed into my mouth as soon as I reached her, before hustling into a hut to shelter from the rain. And then onwards to the summit once the rain had let up a little, which was physically difficult (probably the steepest and most perilous stretch of all) but psychologically straightforward, as by that point the end is literally in sight.
And then a night on the rim of a volcano, allegedly the world’s largest (or maybe second-largest) lava lake, drinking wine and whisky out of plastic cups and eating a surprisingly delicious meal, made by our stalwart cook, Janvier; the lights of Goma and Gisenyi spread out on one side; the crater on the other; shreds of clouds beneath, and Mount Mikeno poking its way through them. The whole thing shot instantly to one of my top five ever travel experiences.
In Nairobi after a few days on the Kenyan coast, at Watamu. My companion and I took advantage of a delayed trip to Puntland on my part, booked last minute flights and an airbnb, and took ourselves away for three days of whatever the opposite of a staycation is.* Much to the surprise of both of us, we got a startling amount of work done: never underestimate the motivating factors of a) all your friends thinking you’re just off on a jolly, and having to prove them wrong, and b) having pool, beach and dawas within easy reach, to act as regular rewards.
Things that the trip involved:
- So much good food. We lunched at Pilipan once (marinated calamari, shrimp and mango noodle salad, salted caramel chocolate tart), at Papa Remo once (fish carpaccio, crab linguini), and dined at the Crab Shack twice (highlights being the crab – obviously – and the jumbo prawns, but also the whole atmosphere, the dawas – made by the “dawa doctor” – and watching the sun go down). Highly recommended.
- Possibly too many dawas, despite attempting to impose limits upon ourselves.
- Delicious gelato, bought en route to the airport, having made a gelato-specific detour because it was apparently good enough to be worth missing your flight for (accurate) – and then eaten messily in a tuktuk.
- One of the best massages of my life at Lakshmi Spa, followed by re-enacting the Timotei advert between work emails in their tiny outdoor jacuzzi.
I am back in Nairobi just in time to have dinner with friends in Karen, go for a run while dodging warthogs, throw a lot of filthy clothes into the wash, repack, and then head off to the airport again for the next thing. Of which more later, once it’s actually happened.
*By which I mean going somewhere lovely, specifically to work. Facebook consensus was that the most appropriate term was Remote Office or Mobile Office, though one friend did suggest the excellent “Holi-job”.
I have been trying to write this post for two days now, about my recent trip to Somalia and Somaliland (which was, from my perspective, great), and how I’m now reading Nadifa Mohamed’s Orchard of Lost Souls, which is set in Hargeisa in the late 1980s, and how the Horn of Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought in several years and a boat full of Somali refugees was recently fired upon by a helicopter in the Gulf of Aden and and and, but I can’t stitch it together into a coherent narrative. So I’m just going to post some pictures instead.
The view from the tea shack at Conoco Airstrip, where flights land for Garowe as they’ve been upgrading their airport for about nine months now. Garowe was hot and windy and bright, and I very much missed the swank sunglasses I bought last year and then lost in the workings of my seat the one time I was upgraded on Kenya Airways.
I think I have said before that one of my favourite things about Somalia and Somaliland is the paintings you find on shops and hotels and restaurants, usually advertising their wares, but in this case exhorting people to comply with security restrictions. (This was at the City Plaza Hotel in Burao, where we also met – briefly – eminent Somali poet Hadrawi.)
The road between Berbera and Burao starts out flat and dusty, and then suddenly you are coiling up into the Golis Mountains and the temperature drops and you get vistas like this.
The beach at Berbera is beautiful and I wanted to swim but the sea was rough and the sand turns to rock as soon as you’re up to your ankles and women swimming in Somaliland is a vexed issue anyway and as such I was fully covered and had nonetheless sparked consternation and mild alarm among the hotel staff when I walked down to the beach, so I had to content myself with an aggressive paddle.
We left early from Berbera to head back to Hargeisa in time for our flight, and were very surprised to find the road covered in heavy mist rising off the desert and clinging to the base of the mountains.
In early December, Clare and I went to Iceland with a small list of things that we wanted to achieve: 1. Dive Silfra; 2. Visit Jökulsárlón (something that’s been on my List for years); 3. Visit an ice cave (and lick it, though we didn’t know we would want to do the latter until we were actually inside); 4. See the northern lights. The entire trip was a crashing success, with items one through three achieved in good time, as well as achieving various other goals that we didn’t even know we would want to do until we did them (hammer a nail into a canvas at a Yoko Ono exhibition! Eat putrefied shark and then a massive pot of fondue to get rid of the taste! Touch a very fluffy Icelandic horse! See a lunar rainbow!) AND THEN as we were congratulating ourselves for an A+ trip, with the ever-unreliable northern lights as our only failure (and not through want of trying), our flight back to the UK was delayed by just enough time for the sky to clear and the northern lights to announce themselves about half an hour into the flight, whereupon EasyJet dimmed the cabin lights and everyone rushed over to the lefthand side of the plane with their noses pressed to the windows and a temporary but beatific sense of aurora-based camaraderie spread through the plane. ICELAND YOU ARE MAGNIFICENT.
On our last night we pushed the metaphorical boat out and booked into the Silica Hotel near the Blue Lagoon. Silica has its own private lagoon, which is open until midnight, which means that when we arrived, after an epic journey from the southeast of the country and fresh from licking glaciers, at 10pm, we were able to get changed and immerse ourselves immediately. One of my happiest memories of the trip is of floating on an inflatable ring in the milky water under a light rain, reading Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale by Kindlelight. (Good, but not as good as The Blue Fox, which is gorgeous.)
The happiest person to ever enter an ice cave
Putrefied shark, which I am mostly glad to never have to try again. Sorry, vikings.
At the end of December, I went to the end of the train line in rural Belgium for a new year’s eve wedding. It was minus five degrees but the air was clear as a bell and we were staying in an old monastery with an enormous fireplace that powered all the heating and hot water. On the morning of the wedding, which was also the final day of the year, I went outside for a wander in nothing but a dress, no coat, cup of coffee in my hands; everything was bright and frozen, as if the whole world was suspended.
We piled into a fleet of cars to drive into France for the wedding ceremony, in a tiny village where the bride’s uncle was the mayor. As soon as we crossed the border the mist rolled in and when we had photos taken in the village green the leaves underfoot were crisp with frost. I read Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora by fires, on trains, in bed with the lights out.
In late January I went to Sierra Leone for one of the more stressful work weeks of my life. I barely read, but when I did it was Kenji Yoshino’s Covering, which had been recommended to me in Boston late last year. I walked on the beach and drank Star beer with friends and colleagues and lost my lovely replacement Mille Collines cardigan thing, exactly a year from when I lost the first one, also in Freetown. I passed by Paris on my way home, and had a single morning of sight-seeing, which I spent lurking like a goddamn gothic in Montparnasse Cemetery.
In late February I had a work-related delay which meant I had an unexpected piece of dead time and so I looked for places that I could go that a) were one (inexpensive) flight from the UK, b) didn’t require a visa to be arranged in advance, and c) I hadn’t been to before. Thus: six days in Cape Verde, serendipitously arriving for Carnival. I bounced between the islands of Sal, São Vicente and Santo Antão, went for four dives and saw my first shark, hiked down from a volcanic crater through heavy mist, ate plenty of delicious food, watched various Carnival shenanigans, listened to live music, read the entirety of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh books, and got mugged once, but that was a small price to pay.
First night in Santa Maria
Watching the Carnival parade, Mindelo
‘Mandinga’, Mindelo Carnival
Hiking from Cova Crater with Edison
Boats at Ponta do Sol
Looking west from Ponta do Sol
Clouds on the volcano
Mystery white-clad woman on the pier, Santa Maria
(First in an extremely occasional series.)
What to do when you’re feeling out of sorts: get out of doors, yomp through fields, look at green things, distract your tedious internal monologue with beautiful views and how much your legs hurt.
One of the things on my Bucket List*, or Life List, or whatever, is to walk Offa’s Dyke, a 177 mile path that more or less follows the England / Wales border, roughly following the site of some ancient Anglo-Saxon earthworks erected by Offa of Mercia to keep out marauding Celts. Conveniently enough the path goes right past my parents’ house in Monmouth, and so yesterday morning, optimistic and foolishly unprepared, I lit out for Pandy, 16 miles away across the hills. IT WAS GREAT.
Things that happened on my walk:
- I was so poorly prepared that I didn’t even bring water (sure there’ll be a shop on the way, I thought. Reader, there was not a shop on the way), which resulted in me drinking from streams and at one particularly low point, a trough in a field. However it’s now 24 hours later and I don’t appear to have cholera.
- Shortly before halfway, I was feeling particularly delighted by my progress and the swing in my step, whereupon almost instantly I tripped over my own feet and fell right onto my knees in the road, tearing my leggings and skinning and bruising my knees (and also coming within inches of knocking myself out). In some ways this was less than ideal, but it did allow me to stagger the rest of the way being very impressed at my own hardcoreness. (I also did not have the stomach to look at my own wounds, and so WhatsApped a blurry photo of my bleeding knees to Nine (in Malaysia) and Clare (in Mongolia), who had to take me firmly in hand when we were on holiday in Georgia in 2011 and I sliced open my knee on falling over on a bridge made of knives: despite my mildly hysterical insistence that I could slap some savlon and a band-aid on it and it’d be fine, they both insisted that it was not fine and summoned a policeman who summoned an ambulance who summoned a policewoman on a segway (? – I may have confused the order of events there) and I was taken to hospital to VERY BRAVELY have my knee stitched up with no anaesthetic. Anyway Nine and Clare’s very scientific internet diagnosis was that it was probably fine and so I staggered stalwartly on.
- I was menaced by sheep! Normally on walks I am wary of cows, just because they are very large and could probably do you a bit of damage just by leaning on you, even if they didn’t mean it – however this was the first time I had encountered sheep that didn’t flee in fear but instead RAN TOWARDS YOU shouting aggressively. I stood my ground and they stood theirs and I was permitted to pass through their field unmolested, no doubt because they sensed my relatively recent return to vegetarianism but I have no doubt that were I still a carnivore they would have butted me to death.
- I passed a whole load of austerely picturesque country churches, including one in Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern that was clearly well-attended for Sunday services, organ music emanating from within, cars parked along the road outside and people roaming the churchyard, leaving flowers on graves. From my heathen citydweller perspective it’s easy to forget that quite a lot of people in this country still take their religion seriously, in a quiet and quotidian way.
- I passed a castle! White Castle in fact, which boasts connection to two of my favourite historical-figures-as-represented-by-literature, i.e. John of Gaunt (thanks to Anya Seton’s Katherine, I imprinted on him at a young age) and Owain Glyndŵr (who features centrally, albeit deadly, in Maggie Stiefvater‘s Raven Cycle). Less heroically, Rudolf Hess apparently used to go and hang out there painting and sketching while awaiting trial.
- Two miles before the end of the route, I suffered a brief sense of humour failure when Offa insisted I get offa** the nice path I was on and instead haul my weary and bleeding and parched body up a massive hill. HOWEVER! At the top of the hill there was the village of Llangattock Lingoed, and in that village there was a very decent pub, and in that very decent pub there was a pint of soda water and lime, which I promptly inhaled, AND ALSO a friend of my aunt’s whom I had probably not seen for about fifteen years, conjured up as if by magic. The universe is very tricksy sometimes. Both the drink and a shouty conversation about Brexit and Trump were sufficiently reviving to make the remaining two miles to Pandy a relative breeze.
*I’ll have you know I had a Bucket List before they were cool (or indeed called Bucket Lists), let alone before they were uncool again.
**Sorry not sorry.
Oh yeah that’s right I have a blog! Hi. It’s already more than halfway through January (aiiiiieeee hoooowwww whhhhyyyyyy) and we’re hurtling towards annihilation what with the Trumpocalypse officially beginning on Friday, but what the hell, here is the complete list of books I read in 2016.
- Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance, which was an interesting perspective, despite its fairly comprehensive takedown by various American friends of mine, as well as in media outlets – most recently this, in New Republic, which a friend sent me the other day;
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is beautiful and angry and searing and erudite and basically everyone should read it right now, seriously step away from the internet and sit down and read this book and think about it for several days;
- The View from Flyover Country, Sarah Kendzior, which is ALSO brilliant and introduced me to many, many new perspectives and ideas, which is quite rare for a book (not because I am totes brilliant and original or anything like that – though, obv, I am – but because the reproduction of ideas in the internet age has become so pervasive that it’s not often you stumble across something that really changes the way you look at things), and which contains this jewel of a quote: “When the most you can ask from your society is that it will spare you, you have no society of which to speak” – which I basically want to scribble on fliers and stuff through people’s letterboxes or daub on walls or skywrite for everyone to see;
- Chavs, Owen Jones, because I was like: wait a second, self, how come you’re focusing so much on the US disaster and so little on your own? I read The Establishment a while back, which was great, but this is possible better: angrier, smarter, more incisive, and alarmingly prescient for something that was written in 2011.
Here are the articles I’ve liked (or, in some cases, “liked”) enough to post on FB:
- Please Stop Saying Poor People Did This, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd on Jezebel;
- My Fair Trump, Alexandra Petri for The Washington Post (a much-needed comic voice amidst the trashfire);
- A letter to America from Leslie Knope. Knope 2020!
- Post-Truth Nation, on the Huffington Post;
- The magnificent Sarah Kendzior again (if you read one thing, read this);
- Steve Bannon tells the Hollywood Reporter (via CNN) that “it will be as exciting as the 1930s”, which is totally 100% not sinister at all right?? RIGHT?!?!?
And here are some reading lists or syllabi that I’m working my way through:
- From the New York Times, Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.
- From the Guardian, Inspiration in Dark Times.
- From Savage Minds, Teaching the Disaster, which linked to…
- …Trump Syllabus 2.0, and…
- … The Black Lives Matter Syllabus.
And so. I read and read and read because I don’t know, yet, what else to do; I read because, as absurd as it sounds, the simple act of gathering and synthesising and analysing knowledge is a featherlight counterweight to the post-truth, post-reality political climate in which we’ve found ourselves enmired. I vacillate between thinking that I’m taking this all too seriously, and that I’m not taking it seriously enough – because that’s what it feels like when you’re in a position of privilege, to see these political changes and to think 1930s Germany and then, again, immediately: no, of course it’s not that, not again. It’s a sign of my privilege to believe us better.