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.

Beautiful Desert

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.

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Disorders on Borders Part 2

Two things stood out from our brief visit to Albania, the cars on the road and their drivers. I read somewhere that in Albania 80% of cars are Mercedes. Although this seems ridiculous, our experience told us it couldn’t be far from the truth. This is apparently due to a large scale smuggling operation after the government collapsed in the 90s. Thousands of Albanian economic refugees were given asylum in Western Europe. Once they were there they stole lots of Mercedes and drove them back home to Albania to sell them. We saw evidence of this practice when we investigated a scrap yard for Land Rover parts. All we found there was an elephant graveyard of Mercedes Benz carcasses with Italian and German number plates.

The roads in Albania are not too bad but broadly single carriageway, they are full of freight and as a result the Albanians have become, shall we say, very confident bordering on psychotic when overtaking. The sheer consistency of this behavior was impressive. Throughout our drive through Albania we were being overtaken more than we weren’t, when we came round a corner or over a hill it was unusual not find two sets of headlights coming towards us at frightening speeds. The Albanians overtake with blind faith in the compliance of the person being overtaken. The whole system would become a 20 car fireball if ever just one person failed to obey this rule. The ominous bouquets that lined the road implied this was not necessarily an exceptional event.

Next we crossed Albania to Kosovo, another less than textbook border. Rich was driving when we pulled up to a crush of burning brake lights and jarring horns. The other drivers informed us that the road into Kosovo had been barricaded by anti-government protests. This was a serious blow to morale, we were all tired, hungry and still a long way from our destination in Macedonia. We sat while many Albanians turned and sped off the wrong way up the motorway. We were contemplating this as our only remaining option when a helpful man with a thuggish air approached our car from the shadows of the central reservation and tapped on the window. He was also heading into Kosovo and willing to show us a route around the barricaded tunnel. Our team was divided, half wanted to take the man at his word and follow, the rest were convinced that this was a Kosovan rebel and we were imminently going to find ourselves reading a poorly translated script into a camera-phone with four armed men looming behind us. In our sleep starved state we were all a bit edgy.

As a result of the “we are about to be kidnapped!” party not being able to come up with an alternate plan we followed our furtive guide. He climbed into his 90s Italian Mercedes and set off on a mud track down the side of the motorway embankment. We followed as he deftly negotiated an abandoned building site and continued through infinite murky backwaters. As we distanced ourselves from the lights of the motorway the “we are about to be kidnapped” party was garnering support. In our caffeine addled state we watched the Merc scramble up an impossible trail of soil and loose rocks. We followed. Just as we were all mentally selecting the photo our parents would give to the BBC to accompany the headlines we reached the apex and emerged on an expanse of deserted motorway. Our guide strolled over to us from his car and explained in broken English that his Samaritan favour would cost us 50 euros. The relief in the car was palpable, this man was merely a crook not a saber rattling revolutionary. I have never been so pleased by an attempted fleecing. We gave him 10 euros and sent him on his way disgruntled but thankfully not militant.

We arrived in Skopje, Macedonia in the small hours, located a hostel and slept. The next day was uneventful except for a brief comic interlude for everyone but me. I was interrupted from the call of nature and chased scurrying back to the Landie by an enormous stray dog with the build and attitude of a Millwall fan.

We crossed into Greece and drove along the Aegean coast to Athens where we would pick up two more temporary teammates bringing our number to a magnificent seven in the Landie. Ambitious?

At the height of our power we were many.

At the height of our power we were many.

Venetian bowls

I was astounded on first visiting the little boy’s room in Austria to find a toilet basin that appeared to have been installed backwards. Most Europeans are accustomed to a watery sink hole at the rear with a gentle, ergonomic upwards slope towards the rim at the front. However this new and alien specimen has its pool hard at the front, with a horizontal platform behind. I was assured by our Austrian guests that this is the norm here.

I take several issues with this new discovery. Firstly, as a chap, the angle of attack for minor visits to the loo is so acute as to be too risky, given the repercussions of stream glancing rim. Secondly, aforesaid horizontal plateau appears to defeat one of the best functions of a modern toilet by allowing any product of a major visit to the WC to proudly sit aloft in room air, rather than being enveloped by odour-restrictive water. Thirdly, any major business conducted will result in inevitable requirement for brushing, which can lead to awkward situations if no such brush is available. Finally, closer proximity of business to the wiping hand only increases the risk of a catastrophic meeting of the two. Unthinkable.

One thing the Austrians do well is Autumn!

Having Left

So, it has been a week and a half since we left Cornwall. This statement in itself seems incredible. When immersed in routine and familiarity, each week can fly by, dropping us surprised into the next month or season. For us now the opposite in the case. I am sitting in Prague and a lot has happened. However, before any new stories, I feel I need to pay tribute to our staring point. Cornwall.

Our leaving party was charged with emotion. The excitement of the waiting world, a limitlessness adventure, has only begun to grow as we move across Europe. Our last days in Cornwall had the autumnal feel that something great had come to an end. Really, for us, one adventure has drifted into the next. Goodbyes were said, loose ends tied off and we were sent off with a warmth that reflected sincere and lasting friendships. Above all, this is what makes a place of residence a home.

Driving east toward Somerset we were reminded how good the West Country has been to us. Since arriving seven years ago as fresh faced medical students, it seems we have furnished every tor, beach and street with a story; be it a rainy Sunday walk, a perfect sunset surf or an endless night. This has been our adventure.

 Swallows line the telegraph wires, ready for their their long journey south, beyond the Sahara. Today, we are chasing their tails. Like them we will remember and return.
NB: post written by Bass with augmentation of Czech beer, pinch of salt required!

Excited about Send-Off!

We’re nowhere near ready, but it’s our send off bash in a few hours in Perranporth! We can’t wait. We have 75 confirmed for dinner, with more coming for a sing later. Wonderful news.

Our thanks in advance to Seiners Bar, who have been wonderful in supporting and doing all the work for the event, and to everyone who has been kind enough to support the raffle with wonderful prizes, and of course to you all for coming! We’ll see you there…

On the Radio!

Click here to download our interview with Tiffany Truscott on BBC Radio Cornwall – 

So it turns out that being interviewed on the radio is quite the experience. We decided that we would turn up before time, prepaired, practised, calm and collected. As we screeched to a halt outside the studios ten minutes before we were due on air, I wondered what that would have felt like. The BBC, at least, were organised; we were ushered through, given a quick ‘interview 101’, told not to worry, and suddenly the red light was on and looking expectantly at us.

Luckily our interviewer, Tiffany Truscott, seemed to have done this before, and steered us through in what felt like a reasonable organised fashion.

We left elated, amazed that we had managed to avoid pregnant silences and (major) expletives. We had just one rule… In no circumstances were we going to listen to the interview!

If however you would like to listen to our interview, it can be found HERE. Jump to 27 minutes to find us.

The Making of Mechanics?

So, we had proven that we could drive long distances, under the pressures of time and inclement weather. But that would only get us so far…

We found out exactly how far two days later.

The village of Perranporth can be quite a honey pot when the weather is beneficent, with the center being a hub of activity. So it was that in the height of the midday pasty rush, and with a mechanical clatter worthy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, our car suddenly lost power. After a few sheepish minutes of tyre-kicking and bonnet-lifting, we found that the rear prop-shaft had shorn through, leaving the longer half flailing against the cars underbelly.

I would like to take a brief interlude at this point to discuss mechanical vocabulary. As we hope some Landrover enthusiasts will read this, we will not shirk on technical talk. However we cannot continue without reference to the enormous capacity that mechanics  holds for innuendo. We have no intention in following the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do we want to write the script for ‘Carry on Africa’. We can only assume that the discipline needed to discuss sockets, rods, grub-nuts and grease nipples without a ribald smirk or bawdy nudge comes to a professional mechanic with years of training. We simply don’t have the time or the maturity.

So We were stranded in a beachside lay-by with little chance of recovery.

We were quick to analyse the situation:

Pros: this could have happened in the Scottish Borders when we had no breakdown cover.

Cons: We were causing what was a significant hold-up by Cornish standards with no hope of a quick fix.

It was at this point that we were to find that in a Land Rover, help is often near at hand. A few minutes later a friendly man in an old 90 drove by and offered assistance. He was able not only to tow us to safety but provide the part from one of his several Land Rovers.

We had our first repair job. We tackled the problem the only way men of our generation know how: a key-word search of Google. It seemed like a simple matter of unbolting the broken bit and bolting the new bit on. However we hadn’t realised that these parts had been bolted on with thick steel when we had been about six and left to rust fast in the Scottish highland. Dan spent the best part of a week on his back, locked in a duel with each stubborn and accustomed bolt. He eventually emerged, oily, eyes raw with rust, the mad grin of a man who has tunneled to freedom with a teaspoon on his sooty face, brandishing the broken part. Rusty nuts would be a problem that would continue to trouble us.

Rich chanced upon a chap called Dave, an ex-sapper who lived up near Exmoor and ran a casual bush mechanics course. Well-schooled in Land Rovers from a young age, he was a keen expert and seemed excited to have new vehicle, complete with new problems to solve. Over two weekends, we visited his eccentric converted church and work-barn arrangement and set about getting to grips with our machine.

A modern car is a magical automaton synapsed  with wires and computers that know better than you do. If angered in some way it will devise a fault only fixable with a laptop and part so specialist that there needs to be a company to make the tools, for a company to make the tools to make it (at a price necessarily high to keep all these companies afloat). At first this is how our Land Rover seemed. However after two rainy weekends and quite a lot of studying before and after, it all started to make sense. The whole process of how the timed cycles of a piston generate force, this force being handed from gear to gear to shaft to wheel began to lock together. We saw first hand as we removed each part, how the forces of explosions in quick unison are harnessed by a clever arrangement of oiled metal moving parts. We learned about breaking, cooling, suspension and exhaust; tools, jacks, oils, wheels and lubricants.

Dave’s style of teaching certainly nurtured the initiative essential for a bush mechanic (these days defined as a mechanic without Google). He would happily watch us discuss how best to gain access to the transmission or lever the tyre off a wheel. This cemented the procedure into our memory. As well as teaching the correct approach to repair and maintenance procedures, he encouraged the improvisation needed to fix a problem with limited resources. One crowning moment was fixing our recently busted differential lock. We stripped away the casing and used a parts manual to narrow down which part was broken. We meticulously removed each fitted lever and cog and found the culprit (a sheared grub screw if you must know). Of course taking things apart is easy; it is the putting back together that is the challenge. Our Landy is simple enough that, by and large, as long as long as you put it back as you found it, you haven’t made things worse. This of course is a simple theory with a frustratingly complex practice. On attempt number three, the Diff-lock lever slid firmly and smoothly in, to engage the engines full power, with manly roars of satisfaction all round.

We were on our way to becoming bush mechanics.