African coincidences

Reading Dervla Murphy’s Ukimwi Road, a description of her trip through Kenya and Uganda in 1992 by bicycle at the age of 60, I came face to face with my own increasing antiquity. I assumed it was set way back last century then realised, I had been in Kenya myself before the book had been written. 

I went there in 1985 with a bunch of friends renting a jeep and driving around the Rift Valley. It was the same time as Karen Walker was murdered in the Masai Mara, and Dervla mentions seeing her distressed father in Nairobi in his vain attempt to track down her killers, some seven years later.

 Ukimwi is the Swahili word for AIDS. Dervla became resigned to the fact that her trip would be hijacked by the constant reality of HIV positive people everywhere sick or dying. She was seen as a Western person who must be able to help them. 

Then I tune in to a podcast with a Jesuit in Hong Kong. He is just back from a trip to Kenya, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg where he has been highlighting the notorious business of drug mules between Johannesburg and Hong Kong. He is entertaining and self effacing, but his blogs have lit a fire in the East African media leading to the number of mules arrested at Hong Kong airport reducing to 2 or 3 from over 100.

Women are enticed by people who offer great hope of fortune overseas and then forced to conceal drugs in their bodies. Long terms of imprisonment or the death penalty lie ahead of them when they are inevitably picked up at Hong Kong airport which has high caliber police that detect the slightest change in behaviour signalling drug carrying.

I think of the web and how this exposes women to scammers skilled in enticement. I think of the women I know myself who have been deceived and scammed via tinder and other online apps. How close we can come to deadly intrigue and exploitation.

And I think of Dervla Murphy, on a bike in the jungle of Uganda, fearless, unarmed, without a phone in 1992, the year my son was born. How impervious she was – still is – to influences that might sway her from her path. I feel a connection with her. Long before I read any of her books, I heard my mother talking about this classmate of hers in Waterford who used to have to miss a lot of school to mind her mother and who took her 9 year old daughter on a bike trip across the Peruvian Andes in 1977. The year I was born, 1963, she cycled all the way to India from Ireland.

She still lives in County Waterford and travelled for the sheer joy of it, ‘refusing to believe in disaster until it is finally manifest’ – as she wrote in ‘In Full Tilt’ about her 1963 journey. 

My mother is now gone but I recognise in Dervla some of the grittiness of my mother – the physical toughness, adventurousness and joy of travel for its own sake that stirs up so much in me.

Sentinels of the Past

It seems like there is nothing that would surprise these gnarled yet stately trees who have witnessed thousands of campers since the Dionysus campsite opened over thirty years ago.

At its peak, the campsite was regularly host to 800 occupants. Now the advent of the all inclusive cut price holiday has drawn people away from camping.

The plus side is more space for those of us who still camp. And the people you meet are true travellers. Like the French couple in their late seventies. Travelled with their tents on their backs. He had life theories that were a complete philosophy. He refused to be called a philosopher. When I asked him why he replied because he did not write a book.

When I asked him why he did not write he replied because he experiences things and that is enough. Put me in my place.

The trees also do not make any commentary. Yet they have seen aeons of change around them. In their younger years, conquest by Venetians, Turks, English. Planted by Corfiots in return for an ample purse so that the lamps of Venice could shine throughout the dark nights of winter, lit by olive oil. Now they stand immense and bear witness silently. Shading travellers from the intense summer heat of July and August.

My home for three months on and off. The only sound at night besides the owl hooting continuously was the sound of an olive dropping on the caravan roof.