Tag Archives: travel

Halfpenny thoughts no.5 – Ulysses and the road home

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Every time I board an Alitalia plane to fly to Rome, where I live, I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to name the in-flight magazine after Ulysses, a person who took all of ten years to make it home.

Being led up the juice can path

Many years ago I spent several weeks in the Sahara desert. One part of the trip was a journey from Tamanrasset to the oasis of Djanet. About seven hundred kilometres as I recall. There was no road then, just pistes and only four or five places along the route where one could get water. One of them being an abandoned foreign legion fort where the water was salty.

I was travelling with two Italian friends. By the time we got to Tamanrasset, the vehicle we had started out with was no longer available, so we arranged to be carried by a Libyan truck which was travelling to and past Djanet.

The truck’s cargo was goats and after we had secured our passage, we spent a day watching the driver bargaining prices with a succession of goatherds. I remember various herds of goats scattered around the landscape waiting for their turn to be inspected. As the sun went down, a deal was struck and we all set off.

The goats were loaded on the upper deck of the truck. We (and twenty-odd Mauritanian immigrants) were sat in two rows on a platform on top of the driver’s cabin. I and my two friends were sat in the back row near the edge. This meant that for the whole journey you received an unceasing succession of friendly butts in the back from the goats. If you wanted to hold on to something, you could grip the bars separating you from the goats, but not for too long because being butted on the fingers really hurts. The people in the front row didn’t have anything to hold onto and I remember that every half an hour or so we tugged a gentleman in front of us back up to a safe position, since being rather heavy he used to slip down inch-by-inch towards the front and the road.

It was a very spectacular way of travelling, although we soon decided our driver was mad and began to call him Amin. At one point, he had a race with another truck.

It was not a surprise really when the truck broke down. The crew dug a hole in the ground, drove the truck over it and proceeded, as far as I could see, to disassemble the engine and then re-assemble it. This did not seem to help. Despite what we had read about people always helping each other in the desert, none of the vehicles which came by, stopped to inquire whether we were in trouble. Eventually it was decided that the goatherd would set off on his own on foot with the goats, while we proceeded, very slowly, on three cylinders. So slowly, in fact, that when we got to Fort Gardel, the next watering place, he was already there. Eventually, though, we reached Djanet. The last few miles were spectacular, with sand dunes on the right and basalt and sandstone cliffs on the left.

Reaching an oasis after crossing the desert is a big event. After you have spent days without seeing plants or water, you seem to have reached a haven of luxuries: water, dates, oranges, buildings, trees. We found a hotel which was completely empty. The manager gave us one key, to an entire wing. We had fifteen showers to choose from. Djanet would have been even more spectacular if we hadn’t arrived in the vicinity of a national holiday. They told us that all the aircraft in the country had been requisitioned for the fly-by. It seemed a bit unlikely, but when we went to the market it was obvious that there hadn’t been any deliveries for a long time. I remember an array of stalls displaying nothing at all. The emptiness was interrupted by one or two cans of sardines here and there.

One evening, though, I saw something which looked as if it had been charmed up out of a legend. A little path broke off from the road. It was marked out by a row of lit-up fruit-juice cans. I walked down the path and came to a café. The counter was built from fruit-juice cans too. I almost expected to meet a djinn. I hadn’t drunk fruit juice for weeks.

I walked up to the counter. “Yes?” the man said. “I’d like a fruit juice” I said. He looked at me for a while. He looked at me as if he had been tending a bar whose counter was made of brick and someone had just asked him for squeezed brick juice.

“Mint tea?” he asked. Because that the only thing he had.

 

New Rome bus routes

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This is the third time this has happened to me. I open the Rome bus app (Roma Bus), click on the tab to check the route of a bus (it was the 32 this time) and a screen appears with a map of a large part of North-West Africa. Are there secret bus routes running down, for example, the border of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria to a terminus near Lagos?

If there is bus of this kind what is its number: 13 ?

And what would it look like? Perhaps like this:

overloaded truck 3

 

“I’ve shot hares.” Patrick Leigh Fermor

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After a moment, I heard Baron Pips laugh quietly and asked why. He said : ” You sound just like Count Sternberg.” He was ancient and rather simple-minded Austrian nobleman, he explained. When he was on his death-bed his confessor said the time had come to make a general confession. The Count, after racking his brains for a while, said he couldn’t remember anything to confess. “Come, come, Count!” the priest said, “you must have committed some sins in your life. Do think again.” After a long and bewildered silence, the Count said, rather reluctantly, “Habe Hasen geschossen”—”I’ve shot hares”—and expired.

 

from A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh-Fermor

My Accidental Greek Wedding

manuel conv 2I have an irrational passion for phrase- books. Whenever  I go to a country where I don’t know the  language I take along a phrasebook. I often take one with me even when I go to a country where I do speak the language. Sometimes in a foreign country I suddenly stop in the middle of the road. People walk into me, but I don’t notice because my mind is wholly taken up by the question: why? What are phrasebooks for?

The first surprising fact about phrasebooks is that you hardly ever find what you want to say in them. Of course if you read them from cover to cover you will be able to note down some expressions which will be very useful in many situations. Two I have just noticed in the last few seconds while writing this are I am not used to this and Is this a local or a national custom? These are both the kind of thing you can want to say about a dozen times a day when travelling. But phrasebooks suggest the idea that when you find yourself in a situation you will be able to turn to them and find a way to deal with it. This, I think I can say safely, never happens. Read more…

Mexican Bus Ride

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Mexican bus ride was the US title given to a Buñuel film called Subida al cielo (Ascent to Heaven). What follows is about a Mexican bus ride of my own and has nothing to do with the film, I just liked the poster and it is always worthwhile mentioning Buñuel, but you can see an
excerpt here.

My ride started in Cuautla, in the state of Morelos. Its main claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Zapata, and it still has his train, which it takes out for a walkabout every now and then.

A Mexican friend of mine once told me that when she was a kid her mother had taken her on a week’s vacation to Cuautla and they had gone to the cinema every night and every night had seen the same film. That is the kind of thing you do in Cuautla.

I had the following interesting experiences in Cuautla, – buying a voltage convertor, being offered live chumiles to eat (I declined), hearing a train whistle and thinking I was going to see Zapata’s train and finding out it was a toy train full of kids,

converter

Voltage Converter

chumil

Chumil

                                                               

zapata train

Zapata’s train

toy train kid

Not Zapata’s train











encountering a butterfly (more -though not much more- about this here), going to a shoe-shop and watching a friend buy sandals, looking for a beer and getting directed to a saloon-style cantina for real men only, managing to get out of the cantina two hours later, being asked to hold a baby, but most of all catching a bus.  (I must admit that I couldn’t find a picture of a chumil and the insect shown is actually a tumil – but I can’t tell the difference, it might just be an alternative spelling.)

I can’t remember whether the bus (to Puebla) was the Estrella Roja or the Oro line. We climbed up through the mountains on a bumpy, narrow road. Somewhere which looked like nowhere a boy got on and started selling lollipops. “Paletas, paletas,”
he went up and down the aisle. He must have sold one, because I heard him say “Gracias”. Then he sat down next to the driver and looked with a gentle gaze at the road. The driver caught my attention because he talked to the kid, who couldn’t have been more than twelve, respectfully as one would talk to an adult. After about twenty minutes the boy got off. Another place which looked like nowhere. He crossed the road and stood and waited for a bus going the other way, shuttling I supposed all day from one nowhere to another.

“Not much profit for that much time”, I said to the driver.

“He’s doing OK”, the driver said. And he asked me where I was from. When I told him I lived in Rome, he said “Estàs muy lejos de tu rancho.”- (“You’re very far from home”- although I liked the suggestion that I might actually have a ranch). And then he started talking about things. He had been all over Mexico, all over Central America, and through the United States, driving buses. He collected a stone from every place he went to. “Which is the place you would most wish to have a stone from ?” I asked him. “Palos”, he said, “where Columbus set sail.”

He told me “My brother is an engineer, my sister is a lawyer, but when I see a bus go by, I want to drive it.”  He was reading a poet I hadn’t heard of. Later I discovered that he was very famous in Mexico, though much less outside Mexico: his name was Jaime Sabines, and he quoted some things to me. Here is a poem about the moon by Sabines.

When we drew close to Puebla, he pointed out three volcanoes, la Malinche, Iztaccíhuatl, and the very lively Popocatépetl. I thought that, considering it was boiling away, Popocatépetl had a useful rhyme with kettle. And then as we drove into the elegant city and down to the bus terminal, he said, “Gringos don’t know how to whistle” and this is more or less what he said by way of explanation.

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