Even though I've only been on the road for just over three weeks, I think it's safe to say that travelling in West Africa is hard going. A Spanish guy I met in Tendaba Camp summed it up rather well: 'I think travelling here is for masochists,' he said. 'If you visit once, you can put it down to accident, but if you keep coming back, you must be a little bit crazy.' I couldn't agree more; travelling here hurts.
The pain is both physical and mental. The physical demands are pretty obvious: buses are hellishly crowded and travelling through the heat of the day is a real test of endurance, and that's before you consider the awful state of the roads and the hours you spend waiting for the bloody things to fill up; eating healthily is challenging, and there's always the hidden threat of something dodgy lurking under the surface of every meal; you need to drink buckets of water throughout the day, and it needs to be clean and bacteria-free; mosquitoes are absolutely everywhere, and although malaria is the constant worry, the bites themselves itch for days and are fantastically irritating; and as if the days aren't testing enough, it takes ages to get used to the concrete-base beds and rock-hard pillows, so getting a good night's sleep is never guaranteed.
The mental pain is sometimes harder to bear. Travelling is an emotional roller-coaster, doubly so when you're travelling on your own, and sometimes finding the mental strength to get up and go is a real struggle, especially when you know your journey from A to B is going to involve police checks at C, D, E, F and G, a change of bus and a two-hour wait at H, a flat tyre at I, touts flocking round you at J and K, and a bony neighbour's elbow in your ribs as the bus ploughs through potholes at L, M, N and most of the other letters through to Z (and that's without considering all the extra characters on those bloody French keyboards). Somehow when there are two of you it doesn't seem half as bad, as you can wallow in the masochistic absurdity of it all; but when you're on your own, it's hard to do anything other than just wallow.
There are two things I find essential when trying to cope with the stress. The first – a simple psychological tool that sounds slightly obsessive but which really helps – is drawing lines on the map. After a long, bone-shattering rattle across the baking semi-desert, the first thing I do after showering off the detritus of African transport is to grab my map and draw a thick, black line along the route I've just taken. It's strange how such a little thing can mean so much, but it does all sorts of things; it makes me feel as if I've just achieved something, it makes me proud that I've risen to another chunk of the challenge, and it puts the day in context with all these other black lines I've drawn. Sometimes the line is short and sometimes it's long, so to make sure I get the maximum effect I carry two maps with me; one is the Michelin 953, the classic travellers' map of northwest Africa, and the other is a locally bought map of whichever country I'm struggling through. The line on the local map is normally quite impressive and the line on the Michelin map is always minuscule, but together they work as a record of my trip, a confidence boost, and an aide-mémoire.
Ah, the Memories
Having an aide-mémoire is important because the second way I cope with difficult travelling is by building up memories. I know from previous trips that one of the most magical aspects of travelling is the wonderful store of memories it gives you, from horror stories to mind-blowing experiences. You don't remember everything, by any means, but the mind has a delightful habit of storing the best memories at the top of the pile, and it even manages to conjure up happy memories from places where I know I was totally miserable. It's a clever bugger, the mind.
The best thing is that these selective memories help to cushion the physical and mental stress of difficult travelling, and this cushion kicks in incredibly quickly. For example, as I write this in a delightful riverside camp by the River Gambia in Jangjang Bureh, I cast my mind back to places like Dakar and St-Louis, some three weeks away, and I remember good things about them. I remember the cosy little Via Via hotel in Yoff, the atmosphere of Île de Gorée, my first bush taxi ride, the beach huts on L'Hydrobase near St-Louis... and I think of these as good things, though my travelogue tells me I was completely bloody miserable for the whole first week. I was totally homesick, missing Peta, full of doubt, isolated by language difficulties, not terribly enamoured with either Dakar or St-Louis, and I got bitten to shit in my lovely beach hut... but my brain seems to have filtered out the bad bits. This always happens; I find myself thinking happy thoughts about all my travels, even those that I absolutely hated at the time.
But travelling is like eating loads of Christmas pudding to get the charm (or it is for me, as I'm not that big a fan of Christmas pud). You have to put in the time, and you know that there's a chance your bowl will contain absolutely no charms at all... but it's worth all the effort to get the bachelor's button, the traveller's aeroplane or the silver sixpence. So even when things are going badly, and I'm left wondering what on earth I'm doing struggling round this infuriating, frustrating and downright obstructive continent, I conjure up my memories, and it cushions the blow. I still get bus bruises on my arse, but I know that eventually it'll all seem worth it...