Kenya: The Swahili Coast

Like a worried war-time family gathered around the wireless, we crowded around a small window in a Greek hotel room to see a torrent of protesters surge around the Landie, hurling rocks and abuse at the riot police. In Tahrir Square we ate roasted sweet potatoes bearing inverted impressions of the anti-government pamphlets in which they were wrapped. In Sudan the people marched in anger at the murder and concealment of two student protesters. It has felt to us as we have traveled that the world is in mutinous temper. Kenya revealed itself to be no exception.

While we were discovering Uganda and Rwanda, elections were taking place in Kenya. We had not particularly intended to avoid Kenya during this period but it was a happy coincidence considering their last elections were marred by quite widespread political and intertribal violence.  On our return we crossed Kenya quickly, arriving on the Swahili coast after only the briefest of stops to attend a party that confirmed every rumour we had heard about the Nairobi expatriate scene.

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Our arrival was greeted with the warmest of welcomes from Bas’ parents, William and Lucy Wallace, and their friends Martin and Dawn Whetstone. A wonderful week was spent lounging by the pool, visiting idyllic beaches and mixing with the who’s who of the Malindi social scene. As we sipped cold beers in the Driftwood club we quickly forgot all about our intrepid expedition. We were delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at the Driftwood and tell a few of our tales as part of a cervical cancer screening fundraiser, which was excellent fun.

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On our final night this paradise was sadly a little tarnished. While sitting up late trading safari stories with the Whetstones and Wallaces, conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Five shots echoed from the night and then it was calm. For several minutes we waited for more, hushed, then a crescendo of automatic fire filled the air. The volleys became more regular as shots were traded. It was a pitched battle between two well-armed adversaries and the sound was close by. David, the askari,estimated that the shots were 200 metres away, near the beach. The clash continued for half an hour and then stopped suddenly.

Martin and Dawn were calm and pragmatic as one might expect from old hands in Africa. “We would have heard on the phone if there was something to worry about” said Dawn. We speculated that it might have been Somali pirates fighting the police. Raids on the North Kenya coast were more common a few years previously before the international navy presence in the Gulf of Aden was increased significantly. After a nightcap to settle the nerves we retired to bed.

In the morning, the town was going about business as usual, it takes more than a gunfight to upset the balance in Kenya. It transpired that the police had stumbled across a terrorist militia, training in an abandoned building by the beach. In the resulting battle 4 policemen and 8 militiamen had been killed. The remainder of the militia had scattered. The story at the Driftwood club was that Bob, an 80-year-old ex-pilot and policeman, had spent the night keeping watch on his roof with a rifle, while his two askaris patrolled the grounds. It seems that lessons learned in the Nairobi police force die hard.

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With a fond farewell to the Martin, Dawn, William and Lucy we set off through Tsavo national park on our way towards Tanzania. A few hundred kilometers south and the wet season was in full swing, a mixed blessing. At 6 o’clock in the morning during a particularly miserable camp in the gravel of a petrol station forecourt we found ourselves in the heart of a tropical storm. It became apparent that we had pitched our tents in an almost imperceptible trench, which was quickly filled by the deluge, drowning us and all of our sleeping bags with us. On the other hand, however the recent rains had covered the, normally arid, Tsavo savannah with a lush green blanket. The red dirt track that transected the park was gaudy in its bright contrast to the insufferably verdant plains. The landscape was all the more beautiful, as one is so accustomed to seeing dry African savannah in wildlife documentaries.

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The Tsavo national park was the stage for the story of the infamous Tsavo Lions. In 1898 the Leut. Col. John Henry Patterson led a project to build a bridge over the Tsavo river as part of the Great Kampala to Mombasa railway. During the project two male lions repeatedly broke into the camp by night and dragged the Indian workers away to devour them. In an effort to deter the animals Patterson built huge fires and thorn fences around the camp. For nine months he hunted the cats, wounding them on several occasions. Patterson attempted to trap the lions by equipping a train carriage with steel barred cage in which two workers slept as bait. In the morning he found the carriage destroyed and the workers abducted. After 135 lives had been lost Patterson finally killed the pair and their huge nine-foot skins spent the following 25 years as rugs in his home before they were retired to a museum in Chicago.

The Adventures of Salami Man (Part 2)

 

The sun was almost extinct as we climbed the steps in front of Berbera police station to find an old man in a wicker chair. Two armed men in dusty berets flanked the Police Chief but he himself displayed no military attire. He wore only a swathe of burgundy fabric, richly embroidered and firmly swept around his bent body. His face was scarred and wreathed by steam from the teacup he rested carefully on a saucer. The steam rose beneath his tiny dark eyes and he inhaled as he looked out over the pinkish town. From behind his teacup the Police Chief listened to Captain Paunch then spoke some quiet instructions. A man in a collared shirt appeared and translated for our benefit. We were to come back in the morning. The Police Chief would not see us now.

 

Soldiers conducted us to a smart hotel, made reservations for us then left. We were told in no uncertain terms by the manager that, should we leave the grounds, the Police would be contacted immediately. As we sipped coffee and contemplated our house arrest Colin came hurrying with news “The owner wants to see us!” From Colin’s tone we could see the coffee would wait and we followed. At a table on the grass outside the hotel restaurant was seated a smartly dressed Somali man. He smiled broadly and addressed us in perfect English, “”My name is Mohammed Kadar and I am the owner. Firstly, I am aware of your situation. Please know that you may stay here, free of charge, and I would like to invite you to dine with me as my guests.”

 

We sat and cautiously ordered meals, while Mohammed Kadar spoke “I am a hotelier and property entrepreneur. Over the years I have seen very few tourists in Somaliland and I would like to extend to you our tradition for warm hospitality. I hope that you will return to your countries with positive experiences and that this will hopefully support the growth of a tourist industry in Somaliland.” He then added that perhaps the national news would be interested in meeting us. We were a little uncomfortable with the idea of being used in the media as symbols of social change. As we saw it, this made us potential targets for any group focused on sabotaging that social change. We mumbled a few non-committal responses, “maybe tomorrow or something”.

 

Barely had we forked a morsel of our fresh fish suppers when we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a camera lens. Considering our being a little stunned by this swift development the group coped well, myself excluded. When my turn came to be interviewed the camera panned to my face. Wide-eyed and sweating I began, “I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit Salami man…I mean Somaliland”. Shit! I froze, mute. My eyes darted to Bas. He was staring back at me. As the silence dragged, he mouthed noiselessly “what are you doing?!!”. My eyes snapped to Rich who had lost interest and returned to his fish. On realizing that this was what most people watching this news segment would be doing, my panic eased and I was able to burble some sentences about how safe it all was here. The little red camera light blessedly went off.

 

The news crew left us. Mohammed Kadar passed his gaze across our faces and spoke, “I am glad you feel that you are safe here. For so many years the international community has been saying that we are not safe. The UK foreign office forbids visiting under any circumstances. I think that many Somalilanders are beginning to doubt themselves. They say to one another “are we safe, if the world says we are not maybe we are not”. On this thought we retired to bed.

 

At 7am our escort took us to meet with the Police Chief a second time. In the police headquarters we sat before a broad mahogany desk with our hands in our laps like naughty school children. The anxiety around the table was palpable, we had no idea how serious our illegally exploring Somaliland would turn out to be. Behind the desk the Police Chief was unrecognizable from the day before. Yesterday’s thin frame was lost in an imposing construction of decorated epaulets, brassy buttons and pomp.

 

The Chief surveyed us, deciding whom he would address. He then barked in Somali “Who is your Chief”. One of the soldiers lining the walls shot a finger at the back of my head dragging the Chief’s eyes to meet mine. It seemed this faded military dinosaur could only operate in a system of clear hierarchy. If previous experience in Africa is anything to go by, rank is assigned in order of beard size and as such I had been designated leader. I was invited to tell our story, which I dutifully did and hoped I was faithfully translated. After a few moments the Chief spoke from beneath wilting grey brows, “You will be taken back to Hargeisa.  We will send a soldier with you. First you must go to the Mayor of Berbera, you will go there now!”

 

We ambled across a hot concrete courtyard to the next stratum of power. We were not in the least bit reassured that our small legal violation seemed to warrant such a high level of appraisal. As we congregated around a similar broad mahogany desk a younger man in a suit greeted us in English, “I have heard about your situation and you will understand that you must go to Hargeisa to see the Minister for Interior”. This engagement had not been made clear to us but we nodded meekly. The Mayor spoke to us, with a detached but reproving air, about the seriousness of this episode and the possible implications of our behaviour. We exchanged frightened glances. Why did we need to see the Interior Minister? Yesterday this was a small bureaucratic faux pas; today it seemed that we were on the cusp of an international incident.With every moment that passed we felt ourselves sinking deeper into a mire of strange politics we did not understand. The Mayor concluded his diatribe with “…of course before you go you will have to visit the Port of Berbera”. This parting shot was a little confusing but we nodded along and allowed ourselves to be lead out.

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Next we were driven to a small port outside Berbera. We were met by a man who lead us among the aging wooden ships and shiny steel liners with the manner of an excited tour guide. “This port was recently refurbished in 2009, it receives 5-10 ships a week importing all manner of things including, electrical goods, food, motor parts, fuel etc. Exports include mainly camel!” As he said this he gestured to an enormous Greek passenger ferry. We peered through the stern and saw that the cavernous hull had been partitioned into thousands of small stables, each filled with hay. It looked as one might expect the Ark to look had the great flood struck during the Greek economic crisis.

 

As our guide proudly discussed his port we came across a surprising realization. The politicians seemed to be attempting to give us a guided tour of Somaliland’s top attractions while keeping us under close arrest. This industrial port seemed to be the Mayor of Berbera’s idea of a holiday highlight. We dubbed this surreal sightseeing as the “Golden Handcuff tour”.

 

The Harbour Master, who also spared some time to meet us, insisted that on our way back towards Hargeisa we stop at Somaliland’s main historic site, Laas Gees. On our departure he said to me “give them this and tell them I sent you”. He passed me a hand written note. With our chit in hand and a soldier in the passenger seat we set off back towards Hargeisa.

 

At the entrance to Laas Gees we were astonished to find that our scrap of paper did not cause the gates to fly open with a trumpet blast and drum roll. There was still baksheesh to be payed. After arguing bitterly for his bribe the sentry jumped happily into our Landie for a lift up to the cliffs. Eight people in the Landie was made possible by the park guard’s sitting in the front passenger seat on our bodyguard’s lap. Watching them manoeuvre themselves awkwardly into position with their AK47s still strapped across their shoulders was quite a pretty picture.

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The anthropological site of Laas Gees is found among a series of caves and bluffs jutting out from the flat desert west of Berbera. On the walls of the caves are preserved 10,000-year-old images of troglodyte life in a warm palette of ochre, red and brown. From the caves one can cast out over the plain where snakeskin riverbeds lie like ghosts of the cirrus threads that streak the sky.  As the sun begins to burn all the yellows of this ageless landscape into the rich reds of the cave paintings it provokes an old contentment, a feeling of fraternity with our distant forebears.

 

Next day in Hargeisa we were collected from our hotel by two men from the, quite Orwellian, Ministry of Information. They lead us to a large government building where a crowd of people was waiting for us. From the depths of the mob a news crew materialized to interview us. We were reeling from our new found celebrity in the capital as we followed our friends from the Ministry of Truth inside the government building. Through several narrow corridors we found a doorway swamped by a mass of bodies. A thoroughfare was made for us and we pushed through it.  As we entered we were instantly petrified before a riot of flashbulbs and lenses. Piecemeal we gathered our wits and realised that the lenses were pointed to our right where a man in white robe stood. One of our guides pointed to the man and said, “Prime Minister”. Strangely we were all, I think, a little disappointed that the fanfare was not for us. It is extraordinary how quickly fame goes to one’s head.

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When the crowd in the room had thinned we were seated around a conference table towards the back of the room and the Minister of Tourism came to sit with us. We exchanged the pleasantries that by now we were very accustomed to. The men from the Ministry for Distribution of Opinion filmed our discussion and prompted us with things we ought to say.

 

What followed was a series of similar conversations with each of a string of dignitaries:

Head of the Army

Head of the Navy

Mayor of Hargeisa

Chief of Immigration

Minister For Tourism

Minister for Information

Leader of the Opposition

Attaché for the People’s Republic of Administration and Liaison Officer

 

We were hungry and little tired of the circus when the white robe of the ringleader swept back into the room. The Prime Minister sat at our table quietly and waited while the cameraman prepared. We also sat silent, star struck. He disposed of the pleasantries quickly and spoke to us with calm conviction of the severe implications for his country of their “unrecognized” status. He described fervently how his endeavours to bring Somaliland forward have been obstructed by this ruling and of the effects these limitations have had on the people of Somaliland. Despite his frustrations his outlook was positive. He was confident of his ability to build a future and his self-belief was infectious. When the Prime Minister left we were moved by his words and more than a little inspired by his ambition.

 

The following day we explored the streets of Hargeisa, tasting the foods and enjoying the bustle of business in the market. As we walked countless people stopped us in the street. “Hey you are the tourists!”, people would shout from cars “I have seen you on the TV”, “Welcome to Somaliland”. We were unable even to hide in a crowd watching football, we were sniffed out by yet another news crew for interviews. Our fame in the capital was growing it seemed.

 

After dinner that evening we were picking our way home through the sandy backstreets of Hargeisa when from the shadows a man appeared. He was wearing torn clothes and his face bore the badges of a brawler. “You are the tourists aren’t you,” he said. “I have seen you in your red Land Rover. You are staying at the Jasmine hotel aren’t you?”. We did are best to appease this friendly, if frightening, character and continued home. At the point at which one’s identity and movements are well known by a city’s disreputables it is perhaps time to leave. We returned to Ethiopia the next day.

 

Although we were a bit arrested and spent the greater part of our trip quite frightened we could not help but depart with a fondness for Somaliland and indeed a strong empathy for their cause. They seem to have done all the right things to earn their independence from Somalia and it must be said that their young and well-educated political class inspires confidence. Perhaps in a few years the international community will change their view and we shall all be passing our summer holidays on the beaches of the Costa del Somalia.

The Adventures of Salami Man (Part 1)

Ethiopia, the homeland of Haile Selassi, is the heartland of Rastafarianism. As such Addis Ababa it is still firmly in the thrall of the Reggae that Selassi brought back from his exile in Jamaica. Before Reggae however the music heritage lay in Jazz and Swing. In the first decades of the 20th century Addis moved to the sound of Abyssinian Swing. Unfortunately the music lost popularity and in the 1940s and all of the recorded Abyssinian Swing music was lost in a fire. On the walls of many bars in Addis there remains evidence in grainy monochrome of Africans bopping in slim suits and sharp white shoes. However, sadly no record remains of what it sounded like.

Deep in the backstreets of Addis we walked into one such bar with Colin, a musician from Normandy and our host. Stepping through a heavy wooden door and into the smoky gloom, music struck us like a slap in the face. The attention of the room was gripped and only at natural pauses were ripples of applause allowed to flow from the spellbound crowd. This was not the tinny rendition of ‘the girl from Ipanema’ one might hear whilst waiting to speak to the bank. Our fatigue was grudgingly drawn from us and consumed by the energy of the brass lines. The two saxophonists vied for center stage, relishing the competition for our gaze. Wrapped in this veil of stirring rhythms and strong beer we settled the final plan for an adventure. We would deviate from our path south and away from the road more traveled. We would explore Somalia and visit the sea.

Somaliland

Somaliland fought for its independence from Somalia proper in 1991 and has been operating as a separate country since. It is presently trying to distance itself from its chaotic and politically unstable neighbour to the south. However, the only country in the world that recognises Somaliland as a sovereign state is Ethiopia, probably due to a friendly interest in their new port on the Gulf of Aden. Addis is therefore the only place one can find a Somaliland embassy, which would be our destination the following morning.

The embassy consisted of a steel gate in a residential street with only a hand-painted flag exposing its identity. We knocked and a smiling man in a faded purple T-shirt invited us in. No metal detector and no x-ray, not even a frisk. In an office containing two administrative women, identically overweight and identically dowdy, we handed over dollars, forms and a wad of passport photos. We were rewarded with grim facial expressions transposed directly from a human resources office somewhere in Croydon. The administrative staff were surly but efficient and we had all the visas and car permits necessary by the afternoon.

As we approached the border with Somalia the landscape changed. Rocks and sand replaced soil. Leafy shrubs were traded for knots of wiry bush, each bristling with a thousand three-inch spines. Despite its apparent cruelty we felt at home back in the desert. The desert is simple and minimal; it consists of only land and sky. There are no hoards of curious locals pawing at everything, no one to gather into a suffocating audience any time we attempted to drink a cup of tea. There are no whining mosquitoes or giant war-machine wasps. There are barely any fauna apart from the camels grazing lazily. One can lay serenely under the stars, safe in the knowledge that not even rain will interrupt the stillness.

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The border was uncomplicated and we were soon in the capital city of Hargeisa. The differences between Ethiopia and Somaliland were marked. The first thing we noticed was the change from Christianity to Islam. All the scantily clad girls of Ethiopia were gone and in their stead were elegant burkahs in cheerful colours bobbing lightly along the streets like Pac-man’s ghosts. We approached a moneychanger sitting among many of his kind in a street market. He lounged like a prince on a bed of old sacking. Before him was a block of his wares arranged neatly in size order. Each brick of money was tied with elastic and placed carefully in the wall of this currency cube. We exchanged 20 US dollars with his lazy highness and received a wad of notes big enough to chock the wheels of the Landie. As we walked away we saw another moneychanger struggling down the road. Among the donkeys and the potholes he sweated and adroitly picked a path for his laden wheelbarrow, piled head-high with money.

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Hargeisa is small but packed to bursting with minivans and Toyota land cruisers, resulting in permanent gridlock. The bright burkahs are complemented by the jolly shop fronts. All are painted with large, crude impressions of the products found therein. Khat stands line the streets and they are no exception to this rule. They are painted with bunches of green leafy stalks and usually an accompanying image of a lion or lightning bolt to assure the buyer of the potency of the product.

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Even before we arrived in Hargeisa the influence of Khat was noticeable. We had to wrestle for our place on the road with Khat lorries racing to deliver their shipment. Khat is a leafy plant that is farmed all year round to supply the widespread and growing demand as a recreational drug. The leaves of the plant are chewed over a few hours to achieve first a stimulant effect and in higher doses a somnolent effect. The active ingredient in Khat degrades and becomes less potent quite quickly after it is harvested, which explains the terrifying urgency of the delivery lorries.

We settled into a hotel in Hargeisa and went out to dinner with a pair of Somalilanders. The food in Somaliland is confidently spiced and you can taste a strong Indian influence. Berbera on the north coast was a trade stop on the tea run from India during the early 20th century. Supper was an enlightening experience. Somalilanders describe themselves as a chatty people and true enough we sat quietly while our friendly hosts spoke fluently on the history, culture and current politics of Somaliland.

In 1888 Somalia was divided, Djibouti went to the French, the western horn and Mogadishu went to the Italians and Somaliland became the “British Protectorate of Somaliland”. It became independent from British rule in 1960 and unified with Puntland in the west and Somalia in the South under the rule of Siad Barre. Barre instigated a Marxist regime supported by the USSR, which soon became oppressive. Somalilanders became disillusioned with the idea of a unified Somalia under Barre and fought for there independence, achieving it in 1991. Since then they have gone from strength to strength. Today they have a democratic government, competent civil service, their own currency and strong borders. Excluding two suicide attacks by fundamentalists from Mogadishu, attempting to destabilise them, Somaliland has been safe for 20 years.

The International community refuses to recognise Somaliland as a separate country from Somalia. This is due chiefly to fears of “balkanisation” of the region and particularly violent reprisals by the warlords in Mogadishu. All the Somalilanders we spoke to had a strong opinion on this topic and it is presently a hot political issue. Somalilanders have a nostalgic love for Britain and the times of Empire. They feel, quite reasonably, that they have done all they can to foster a stable new democracy in the wake of British rule and that it deserves recognition as such. We could not help but empathise with the Somalilanders. The refusal to support their case has made Somalilanders feel, at best let down by the British government, and at worst betrayed.

The next day we set off to find the beach. The first military checkpoint was about five miles outside Hargeisa and we were fully expecting to be turned back to register as aliens and pick up a military escort. We did our best to appear legitimate. With our grinning checkpoint faces fixed we pointed at the paperwork we had and repeated, this is good, okay, okay. Eventually the soldier got tired of trying to explain why we had to go back and opened the barrier. Excellent news. We were free to explore Somaliland. Five miles down the road our celebrations came to an abrupt stop as we came in sight of another checkpoint. Four hours and eight anxious checkpoints later, we arrived in Berbera.

Berbera is a small coastal town housing Somaliland’s newest and only port. We found a dusty track to the beach and were confronted with a shock of turquoise water. A vista of steep green mountains loomimg over porcelain sand stretched as far east as we could see and further into Puntland. Reunited with the sea after so long, we were too excited for words. We leapt out of our clothes and ran headlong into the surf. The bright water renewed us. The dust and sweat of the desert were washed away. Every mile driven and every nerve-jangling checkpoint was worthwhile. We shared the endless gold haven with a group of five or six Somalilanders. The men were gleefully tearing in and out of the rollers in their bunched up briefs and sopping outsized T-shirts. Layered head to toe in diaphanous fabrics, the women smiled from the shore.

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Washed and worn by the waves we eventually piled back into the car to find a deserted stretch of coastline on which to spend the night. We passed and repassed white colonial buildings along the sea front, dirtied by time but latterly spruced up with bright hand-painted signs depicting the wares if the fruit sellers now residing within. We found ourselves at the tiny airport west of Berbera still looking for the coastal road. I exited the Landie to ask directions.

Despite my walking 50 yards from the car in plain sight, the airport security guard was a little startled by my arrival in front of him. I had, it seemed, interrupted his vacant gazing out to the desert. As he pondered my question, a soldier raised the barrier behind him. Underneath slipped a sleek white saloon car with dark windows and beige furry mat visible on the dash. It stopped and a man stepped out in uniform. He had glinting medals on his breast, mirrored sunglasses and a proud paunch resting on his belt buckle. The officer stepped towards me and waited to be informed of what was going on. The soldier operating the barrier approached.

“Where you go?” said the soldier.

I decided against exposing our plans for illegal camping and said we were on our way from Hargeisa to Berbera and had become lost. I flapped our most official looking documents around while I spoke. The officer barked in Somali, the soldier translated, “where are you soldier, you need soldier!” It was looking like we were busted. It was time to abort this conversation before we found ourselves arrested. Delivering some excuses about being late for Wheel of Fortune and having left the iron on, I made to leave. As I turned, a third man in desert fatigues barred my way.  His hand rested on the stock of his AK47 with an unsettling degree of familiarity.  He explained that we had been found moving illegally in Somaliland and that we were to accompany them back to Berbera. I was ushered into the saloon and a soldier climbed into my seat in the Landie. Bas and Rich who were out of earshot of my conversation looked at me through the windscreen for an explanation. I offered nothing.

As we sped towards Berbera I frantically evaluated the situation. We were in trouble. It couldn’t be big trouble, surely. We have just broken a small bureaucratic rule. In Berbera there would be a small bribe, more stamps and forms and we should be on our way. Somalia is a bit of an unknown quantity though, maybe we were trespassing, maybe we were suspicious! I didn’t want to spend even one night in a Somali prison, thank you. All of a sudden those words I had disregarded on the FCO website came back to me with a shiver “there are is no embassy presence in Somaliland at this time”. I am definitely over reacting, it is time to remain calm and make some friends. I offered the man behind the mirrors a Marlboro Red. He took one without expression and began to smoke leaving the windows firmly shut. I chanced a little pigeon English conversation. I am from UK… Britain?… England? It is very hot today, it is very cold in England. I barked an anxious laugh, too loudly for the still air in the car. He remained silent and smoked. Perhaps he doesn’t speak English. I smoked as well.

Aswan to Wadi Halfa: The Second Half-a

Wadi Halfa is a Nubian town on the Sudanese shores of Lake Nasser. This huge man-made lake has divided the Nubian people and displaced them into southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. The deliberate inundation of the old city of Wadi Halfa is still a source of resentment and a favourite topic of nostalgic lamentation amongst the older tea drinkers of New Wadi Halfa. We awaited the arrival of our car by passing five days received into the rich culture of hot drink socialising in Sudan. As we walked the town every corner found the warm smiles of a tea lady and an eager patron ushering us to sit down on cracked plastic stools in the dust for a chat and a chai. With nothing to do but wait we usually accepted these offers.

 

We learned a lot about Sudan and its people during these kerbside conversations. The Sudanese are the most genuinely friendly and welcoming people we have met so far on our travels and indeed we all felt more at home in Sudan than anywhere we had visited. The Sudanese seem to actually want to talk about their country and the outside world and anything else that comes up, with no agenda whatsoever.

 

In Wadi Halfa and Khartoum alike, chai women line the streets and each has her own faithful clientele. Despite their ubiquity these skilled, quiet matriarchs never appear prosaic. They always make an impression on visitors. Our chosen chai lady carries the air of an alchemist as she sits low before a coal stove that skips and fizzes. Her fingers move slowly over old jars, picking black and purple pinches then placing them in the pot with a dexterity born of quotidian love. Her thick body is wrapped in a richly dyed sari and her round brown face smiles from inside a headscarf lined with dancing coins. Her eyes skip and fizz.

 

In all the time we spent drinking tea in Halfa the locals did not permit us to pay for our own tea. If they invited us to sit down then the tea was, categorically, on them. This inexhaustible generosity was discussed at length on cool nights camping in the desert between Halfa and Khartoum. It raised the question of the ethics of accepting gifts from people that one perceives to be impoverished. Some of us would contend that a westerner ought not to let an African pay for tea, or food or indeed offer gifts. Others have argued that it could be patronising, indeed insulting to overrule a Nubian when he is trying to be hospitable, as it is their culture. If one is comfortable accepting food from an African, then to what extent? Would you accept food even if you felt it might be at the expense of your host’s own meal? Perhaps for a Nubian the shame of not being able to offer hospitality to a guest in his country is even more acute than the discomfort of missing a meal. I know I have endured a few foul meals and a few empty bellies during the course of my life on grounds of trying to be polite to a guest or host. There is, I suppose, no right answer but the debate has supported many an interesting campfire conversation.

 

On our last night in Wadi Halfa we were invited to a Nubian wedding. The Nubian people are Muslim, as are the majority of the Sudanese. They also uphold strongly the traditions of their Nubian heritage. These two value systems are divergent on a few issues and we were interested to see how a wedding, which is at once a religious ceremony and a traditional family celebration, would unfold. Before attending we grabbed a couple of falafels from our favourite vendor. Unfortunately, this prevented the chap from consuming his entire stock himself and forced him to glean at least a little profit from all the hard work his wife had put into preparing the food. We drove to the wedding.

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We arrived at a large outdoor area, hung on all sides with colourful fabric. We were alone apart from children running in all directions, all arms windmilling. Needless to say there was no bar so we sat quietly and waited as the dry mud floor slowly filled with shuffling feet. Soon the wedding party arrived to cheers and ripples of congratulatory snapping of fingers. The groom was late in his forties, this was not his first or even his second wife but that did not detract from his delight at being paraded through the crowd. He beamed, the young bride smiled forcedly at his side keeping her gaze respectfully downturned. The couple was filmed while they bobbed through the crowd and televised live on a large mounted set by the band stage for those who could not get close enough to see. After several tours the master of ceremonies stood on the stage and spoke to the guests. His microphone, already set up for the Nubian band, broadcast his short speech distorted by a thick smog of reverb and then the band were welcomed by more snapping fingers.

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A gloomy adolescent stepped onto the stage in a white traditional robe and sat at the keyboard. He set the antiquated Casio to electric mandolin and rested his long fingers on the keys. Suddenly the air was spangled with a patchwork of syncopated melodies. A simpering vocalist with a pencil moustache joined with a stream of unbroken syllables while the arrangement was driven by a rich, thumping drum machine set to bass bongo.

 

The segregated crowd formed into two opposing banks. Lines formed and the guests joined hands, fingers intertwined. The dance began; the steps were simple, reserved and remarkably similar to those of the Hokey Cokey. A portly businessman was talking me through the moves when some unseen person grabbed my hand a little too firmly and dragged me to join the dance. My guide’s judgement had, it seems, been impaired by an imprudent measure of Nubian moonshine. He hauled me into the no man’s land that lay between the male and female dancers. This, it transpires, is frowned upon. As I stood in front of the whole wedding party all I could do was grin like a fool. Then, Allah knows why, I began to dance. Painful moments expired as my smile weakened and my eyes darted about for an escape. The pain was partly the wash of embarrassment but mostly pulsed from the merciless knot into which the two smallest fingers of my right hand had been twisted in the fist of my boozy acquaintance. Fortunately for my, as yet unrealized, career as a concert pianist there is a system in place at Muslim weddings for handling such an encroachment upon the delicate disposition of the ladies. Several stout men in robes advanced on me from the crowd. They sprayed me in the face with some sort of citrus water (presumably to douse my sexual ardour) and courteously but firmly frog-marched me back to the appropriate side of the wedding. Here my dancing partner was grudgingly wrested from me and bundled off somewhere. I spent what remained of my first Muslim wedding attempting to keep a low profile.

 

The next day we drove to Khartoum.

Aswan to Wadi Halfa: Half-a Tale of Two Cities

It transpires that Aswan is a tourist hotspot. We discovered this when we tried to buy a kofta roll and paid five times the going rate for it. People visit in order to cruise the Nile and visit the colossal tombs at Abu Simbel. We arrived however to catch the ferry to Sudan. For this reason Aswan is also a focus for African overlanders. We arrived in Adam’s home, an overlander’s campsite, hungry and exhausted as had become the norm. We unloaded our belongings into a mud brick hut and were then given the tour by Mohamed, a Nubian who had spent several years working in Cornwall of all places. In honesty we were reluctant to participate in said tour. It had been a long time since we had eaten and we were anxious to start cooking our late supper. Nonetheless we trailed courteously behind Mohamed as he cheerfully explored various huts and facilities. He led us through the kitchen, which was alive with activity. Six Nubian men were performing a complex food preparation waltz. Some rolled rice parcels; others stirred bubbling pots and shook sizzling pans. We surveyed enviously. We would not be eating for an hour at the soonest, even if we could manage to cook without getting tangled in the gears and limbs of this admirable grub machine.

 

Mohamed herded us into the communal area where a low table was laid for an enormous feast, he explained that they were celebrating the birth a of a baby boy to one of the men. The smiling father earnestly encouraged us to sit with them on the wicker mats and eat, in so doing he proffered a bowl of cabbage leaf domadas. Despite our grumbling stomachs Rich and I tried to politely decline. Our limp refusal was halfhearted however as we were starving and furthermore Bas already had a domada in his hand and two in his mouth. We sat.

 

The table was overflowing with dishes. Bowls of tahina, bean fuul and chili sauce, roasted chickens stuffed with risotto rice, curried sausage casserole and pitta breads. We ate until we could not move and then crumbled back onto plump cushions. We lounged there completely immobilized and reminisced about old England with Mohamed until, conquered by the warm cannonball of food in our bellies, we retired.

 

The next day was all business. We had been procrastinating and the time had come for some serious admin. We drained the rear differential and replaced the leaking gasket, changed the engine oil and filter, changed the fuel filter, washed the air filter, wired in the inverter, split charge relay and second battery. Not bad for a mornings work, we were getting better. In the afternoon we went on individual missions for supplies and food for the ferry. My job was a replacement camping gas canister as I had had trouble with this task in the past and was not willing to hand over the baton to anyone else.

 

I walked out onto the streets of Aswan and could not believe my luck; the first person I asked knew exactly where to find gas, as did the following six people. Strangely all of them brought me to the same tourist market selling the same Chinese-made sunglasses and plastic jewelry. In an effort to escape I crossed a railway bridge to the other side of Aswan. This was like walking into another town all together. All of a sudden tourism was a myth and I was in Egypt proper. I stepped off the overpass and was promptly mobbed, not by churlish tat retailers with a sense of entitlement but by boisterous livestock. Chickens, goats and turkeys waddled and skipped among my feet, grocers shouted their wares and prices. Butchers hacked cuts of meat from hanging hooks and fishmongers lustily slapped their slimy produce on slick steel trays.

 

I continued asking my question, and received an assortment of more honest, but still ultimately useless, answers. I wandered behind the stalls and came across a handful of aged souk vendors sitting on low plastic stools. They were talking and laughing volubly so they did not notice my presence for some time. At length, with the help of a small biro diagram on the back of a cabbage, I was able to make my request understood. I waited while the wise old merchants conferred. Minutes passed and I became restless to continue my search. Presently the man seated opposite me wearing a black turban and eyes shot with pink stood up in a hurry as if he had suddenly cracked the riddle. He began rifling through his many layers of smock and with a broad grin produced a gigantic spliff. The men lit up and continued their cheerful dialogue. This was getting me nowhere so I mumbled excuses and ambled shyly away. As I retreated, black turban yelled something to me in Arabic and pointed to the other side of road at a man on a motorbike. I approached the man who said to me in English, “you look for gas can, yes?” Dumbstruck, I glanced back at the merchants and then nodded agreement. He jerked his head at the pillion seat of his motorbike and I climbed on.

 

We bounced over speed bumps and zipped amongst market stalls, skillfully circumnavigating tuk tuks and articulated lorries. After a few minutes of winding lanes I was completely lost and I suddenly had a thought that brought me sharply back to previous memories of traveling. I dwelt on the fact that at that time I was completely at the mercy of this Egyptian stranger. He had only to take me to a group of his mates, somewhere out of town to rob me, or worse. This feeling of vulnerability is a daily concern when traveling alone but I had forgotten about it while traveling as a group. Thankfully, as is often the case, my concerns were not realized. My guide brought me to a small shop far out of town. We crept through a dark tortuous entrance to find a grisled man hunched, smoking a water pipe. My guide spoke to him and the old man pointed to a high shelf where I could see a gas bottle, bright and blue. My heart leapt. I asked to get it down but the old man shook his head. My translator explained that this was because the bottle was empty. Excellent thought I. Well that was a fun waste of time. Deflated I explained that this was not useful to me. My guide seemed more disappointed than me that he could not help, he brought me back to the souk.  I was so close but ultimately foiled again. Perhaps in Wadi Halfa we would get gas. *

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The ferry was a scrum. It was Christmas day and we were lead up the gangway by our perpetually soused fixer Mahmet. We followed as his momentous bulk swung neatly through the crowd tearing a path. We hurried so as not to be caught and lost in the sweating wall of bodies. On the bridge, a few notes in the Captain’s hand secured us a few square feet of deck to rest on. We lay in the sun, lazily burning and watching while the boat slowly filled. Multitudes passed into the hull during the course of the day, each dragging several times his body weight in luggage. The majority were Sudanese traders and their families. Their luggage was produce and electrical products bought in Egypt to sell in Sudan. Countless items were roughly tied or bagged, then hauled up to the deck. Perhaps the significant proportion of goods that are lost to the depths, as a result of absent-minded handling, is written off by the traders as acceptable losses. Indeed no one batted an eyelid when a man next to me turned to speak to a friend and let loose a rope carrying eight magimix blenders allowing them to fall 20 ft, smash apart on the concrete pier and then bob gently away on Lake Nasser.

 

The ferry was a sociable experience. The route from Egypt to Sudan runs weekly and was cancelled the week prior to our arrival. As a result it formed a bottleneck for all the travelers heading south. These consisted of two Swiss overlanders, two Croatian journalists, a Canadian family, an English cyclist and a couple of Germans. The last westerner we had seen was in Turkey so this glut was quite a novelty. Furthermore we had to drink any alcohol we had about us before arrival in Sudan where one receives 40 lashes for possession. A penalty we were, needless to say, keen to avoid.

 

We popped open dusty bottles of beer that had watched our progress from the roof of the Landie since Perranporth. The first drop of Betty Stoggs dragged us back to a Cornish beach and shanty singing on warm September nights. As the ferry pulled us through the still water to Sudan we sang old pirate songs and swigged our ales. The Captain only rarely interrupted our merriment by stepping from the bridge to make his prayers. At these points we would carefully conceal our beer and impose a brief intermission on our raucous shantying. Spirits were high among the traders as well, they were happy to be on their way home. All on the poop deck had a jolly time.

 

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We sang and swapped stories long after the sun had set. We did not understand the naiveté of this behavior until it was time to bed down for the night. More judicious passengers had realised much earlier that a boatload of people occupies a lot more space lying down than they do standing up. As such, on scanning around for a few square feet to lay down our sleeping bags we found none. Rob, our English cyclist from Preston, had flash of an idea. Bag in hand; he darted off for the lifeboats. He strode surely through the marsh of shrouded bodies. In the gloom he aroused frequent sleepy protests when his waivering bare sole found purchase on an unsuspicious face or groin. Sadly Rob’s search was fruitless. Each lifeboat was a snoring can of Sudanese sardines. Rob shambled back disheartened, his feet carefully sparing his earlier victims in favour of a new path of faces and groins. Eventually, we each found a small corner of deck to curl up in and the snug sleeping conditions kept us warm for the few remaining hours before the sun.

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

* 8/1/13 – We still have not found gas.

Any Port in a Storm

As we pulled our mud-caked vehicle alongside the twilight outline of the Flintstone’s Cave hostel in Goreme, Cappadocia we were greeted by welcoming staff and a few friendly Erasmus students.

“Looks like you’ve had fun, what have you been up to?” one enquired.

It would be a few days before the obscure images of the past 24 hours had cleared from our eyes enough to answer that question.

Millions of years ago in Cappadocia, a volcanic eruption or two left this desert region strewn with thousands of slabs of igneous rock. Subsequently the sandstone beneath has been eroded by wind and rain creating a dramatic landscape. Long serpentine gullies sweep around basalt capped golden towers. Lofty plateaus frame a striking scene that is littered with ancient dwellings cut directly into the stone by Troglodyte tribes first and Romans after them. In the warm wind we explored the hills and valleys of this fairytale land. Christian imagery remains intact on the walls of Byzantine churches cut from the soaring towers. Thousands of Christians evaded Roman (and later Turkish) persecution here in vast underground cities. The centurion tasked with flushing out the Christians from these five story bunkers would have had to evade traps such as giant rolling rocks and fallingspears. We spent hours exploring tunnels and chambers, playing out scenes from Indiana Jones and generally larking about.

We left Cappadocia wanting to stay longer but our ferry from South East Turkey was imminent. We roared through the hills east of Iskenderun passing tiny sepia villages, unreal in the glow of scant halogen lamps. We smashed the delicate silence of each town into clattering shards, barking and yelping in our wake. As we awaited unpopulated countryside in which to camp Bas stirred from reflection, “how far do you think we are from the Syrian border?” Somehow it at not occurred to us until that point that, as we flashed through the hills, we were fast encroaching on the disputed Turkish-Syrian border. The mood in the car sharpened and the quest for a camp received new urgency.

Eventually we found our way to the top of a bare hill under gathering clouds. We decided that while it was perhaps unwise to park on a hill in an electrical storm pressing further and bumping into Syrian revolutionaries, the Syrian Army or being mistaken by the Turkish army for either of the above was less appealing. That night our dreams were troubled by phantom conflicts between Turkey and Syria played out in the crack and boom of the storm.

We awoke at dawn to a tap tap on the window and the face of a Turkish farmer peering in. The hilltop on which we had narrowly escaped electrocution and an international incident was revealed in the light of day to be an enormous field of parsley. Like surly adolescents we tramped out of the car to receive our reprimand from an appropriately furious farmer. This did not unfold. In fact the farmer seemed heartily amused by the novelty of finding a Land Rover and three bewildered tourists lost in his parsley. After much awkward laughter, manly backslapping and handshaking we were allowed on our way with a generous gift from our host.

We arrived at the port of Iskenderun by 9 o’clock. After a quick breakfast of parsley sandwiches we registered and parked to await our passage to Africa, the Nisos Rodos. We were to depart at midday. By midnight we had started uploading, things were already starting to feel a bit more like Africa.

After a pleasant 24 hours aboard we were downloaded to Port Said, Egypt. Muted by excitement we took our first breaths of African air as the shadow of our car rolled off the ferry. Our tiny vehicle was lost in a mechanized jungle looming black around us. Monstrous grabbers, lifters and haulers were cut out in monochrome by our stark spotlights. Men with uniforms shuffled out of the gloom, we were not going anywhere until morning. They lead us to a locked compound where we were left for the night.

We cast about. Our new home consisted of a large rectangle marked out by razor wire. The ground was made up of years of compacted grime and leaked lubricants resulting in a nonspecific sticky filth. The compound was inhabited only by a handful of lorry drivers sleeping in their cabs. In the far corner was a single dilapidated toilet cubicle. Inside, a steel showerhead hung from the cracked concrete wall over a squat toilet that could have equally been the drain in an abattoir.

There are none as optimistic as the desperate. We looked at each other, “It’s just one night…it will be fine”. Ravenous, we set about making some food. As I chopped the parsley I watched a skeletal cat sizing up a rodent across the compound. Little red eyes glared back at the predator with unsettling hostility. Gripped by this tiny war I almost didn’t notice the hunched figure that stepped silently from shadows behind. As the outline of a man walked slowly towards our car Rich put his hand on my shoulder and I turned to see a pair of sallow eyes my window. Startled, I locked the door. Several more tenebrous shapes gathered around and began exploring our car with there pallid fingers. Growing numbers gave the spectres confidence and they started speaking to us. “What you doing here, my friend?” choked forth the first. “Nisos Rodos” Bas managed and was met with a chorus of whispered echoes. The first croaked again, “you need anything, my friend?” ruthlessly dragging on the words, “you wan’ beercig’retteshashish?”

“We don’t need anything thank you” Rich stated firmly. The potbellied leader pressed his cracked lips then smiled. “We come back tomorrow, maybe you need something tomorrow” the misshapen bodies slowly melted away. We went to sleep uneasy.

DSCF2521The next day we were up early, keen to sort our paperwork and escape this dreadful oubliette without any delay. Guided by our excellent translator/fixer, Mahmut, Rich made his way through 11 offices. Each office housed a slightly fatter man in a slightly sweatier shirt than the last. Rich financed progressively bigger bribes and in return inky stamps endorsed certificates proving all manner of things. Nothing inspires confidence like a large illegible rubber stamp. A bureaucratic tradition left over from the time of Empire, perhaps. All was developing well until one such clammy colossus clawed in his nose and, when satisfied with his findings, shot the same chubby digit at an assistant dispatching him to check our chassis number.

This was a catastrophe we had been hoping to avoid. Our chassis number has been previously galvanized over leaving us with no proof that our car is the same as the vehicle that our registration document discusses and not a stolen one. Luckily this problem was managed in a distinctly Egyptian way. Mahmut phoned his friend Mohammed who soon arrived and knocked the chassis number in with a chisel. Despite Mohammed’s skilled workmanship we held reservations about our being able to convince the border guards of the legitimacy of our forged chassis number on account of it’s being written in Arabic lettering.

These delays resulted in two more nights spent in purgatory. The long hours were passed predominantly trying not to touch anything and periodically batting away probing interest from the vermin and the pushers. On the morning of the fourth day we tried the gate. Mahmut conversed with the officer while we sat in our idling vehicle. The guard surveyed us over the mountain of forms, stamped in triplicate, skillfully devouring salted sunflower seeds as he did so, spitting a cloud of chaff after each one. He ambled lazily over and asked to see the chassis number. Rich mumbled something and pointed. The officer peered into the darkness under our wheel arch. He peered for too long, something was wrong. Mahmut was perspiring. Suddenly he darted around the car and, concealed by his body, mashed a wad of notes into an expectant hand. Stony faced, the officer completed his checks and walked back to his office in silence. In the dense heat we waited.  Minutes ticked past and nobody spoke. The barrier creaked and lifted; we held our breath unwilling to leave without confirmation of success. Mahmut flicked his hand impatiently and we crept out onto the road. Free. We gathered speed on the road to Cairo and began to celebrate. We jigged about boisterously in our seats and all the tension poured out to the tune of “Free falling” by Tom Petty. We were out, and with a full tank of diesel for a tenner we were on the road to Cairo.

Greece’s Woes

Protests agains new austerity measures in Thessaloniki, Greece

It was with a reluctant parting of eyelids and a woollen head that I surfaced. My slumber had been prematurely interrupted by shouted chants and sounds of a ruckus in the street below. I stumbled woodenly to the open window, squinting in the sharp morning sunlight. At length my eyes focussed on the Thessaloniki magistrate’s court not fifty yards away, and I saw a large angry crowd jostling against a hard wall of riot police and army personnel. There was a tangible tension in the air, even from my lofty viewpoint. The crowd rallied. They surged forwards against the silent black line. They were repelled. This cycle was repeated for a time, until three official looking men emerged amidst roars and jeers to address the throng.  Whatever was said seemed to have a deflective effect, as the group re-organised in the form of a march. Their shouts gradually faded as they turned the corner, leaving me with a breakfast for thought, and a lingering sense of sadness.

Greece is a favourite topic of the media at the moment, and rightly so. Having heard so much about the current difficulties, I was looking forwards to the prospect of being able to form my own perspective. Even better, Dan’s girlfriend Alki and her family were to welcome us in Athens. They were able to give us insight into the local people. Discontent is evident even to the unobservant, with political flyers and graffiti widespread even in rural areas. Public transport and bicycling has seen a new resurgence. The affluent areas of many Greek towns now boast a multitude of empty neglected buildings, some completely derelict. Given that two thirds of Greece’s 11 million people have clustered into its cities, this dilapidation is a worrying sign.

We travelled hard and long to reach Athens, our arthritic engine straining against a hull devoid of any aerodynamic concept. Evidently wind resistance wasn’t much of a concern to the be-wellied Land Rover designers of yore. One of the most concrete deadlines of our trip was all too big in the window. For Dan, arriving late to meet his girlfriend at the airport was unthinkable. She was flying home from Australia after four months apart. Uncharacteristically, and despite Bass’ best efforts, we arrived early. Our timely arrival definitely wasn’t made possible by the delay in Alki’s flight…

What ensued was Greek hospitality at its best. Alki’s mother, Annie, had arranged an airy and futuristic flat for us bang in the middle of the city, and went to a lot of trouble to feed us Mother’s traditional home cooking. I watched with quiet awe as Dan engaged in a cycle of eat-until-you’re-full-and-have-your-plate-refilled which in true Mediterranean fashion lasted most of the day. Our thanks to Alki and her family for making our stay here amazing!

When Katy, a friend from Cornwall with huge charisma arrived, we were seven. We spent a pleasant evening in the cool Athenian air watching Dan running around like a hamster in its ball, trying to fit us and our luggage in/on our Landy. A childhood champion at Tetris, no one is allowed to interfere with this battle between man and the constraints of dimension. We generally leave him to it and try and employ ourselves in other manly activities such as kicking the tyres, and grunting about the local beer.

Somehow this impossible task was achieved, mainly to the further detriment of our aerodynamics, and we departed for Alki’s father’s house in the misty mountains of Paranasos. Off the main arteries Greece’s roads are poorly maintained, and we were glad of our ample suspension. We spent a wonderful few days in holiday-mode, exploring the area around Delphi on terrifying mountain tracks, and we were glad of our state-of-the-art power assisted brakes.

Sunrise: stowing our bags on the roof in preperation for a long drive

Sunrise: stowing our bags on the roof in preperation for a long drive

Our passage to Turkey was via the rural East of Greece. On this road, each kilometre takes you back in time by roughly a year – provided that you drive at 88 miles per hour – ending in 1952, give or take. Luckily our car is angular enough to look as though it has its origins in the fifties, so it didn’t look too out of place. Helped on our way by a number of caricatured wizened farmers astride their grandfather’s tractors, we eventually found our way to the delta of a large river. Here we made camp, and spent our time swimming and constructing a latrine with an impossibly complex trail of signs so that we could find it in the dark. Hobbling back from nature’s call bruised and scratched, I couldn’t help but think that a hundred paces in any direction before doing my business might have been a better solution.

The sun awoke us bright and early, and we were on our way, towards the border and the Bosphorous. Despite the troubles, we had a fantastic experience in Greece, and we really hope that a solution can be found so that this wonderful country can turn the corner towards economic recovery.