You might like to skip this one. It's probably nothing more than self-indulgent pap, but I feel like I need to get it down on paper. After all, dumping one's brain means that sometimes you write rubbish; so be it.
As I write this I'm six weeks into my trip, and I'm absolutely stunned at how difficult I'm finding travelling in West Africa. This morning I woke up with lead in my veins and an awful realisation that I was thoroughly depressed. It was actually tangible, which I wasn't expecting.
This isn't without precedent. I clearly remember a similar experience during my trip through the Australian outback in 1995-1996. It happened in Karijini, the idyllic gorge-filled national park in northern Western Australia, where I was as happy as I can ever remember being; I was exploring one of the most beautiful continents on the planet, it was under my own steam, at my own pace and well within my budget, and I had a huge number of amazing sights yet to come. I'd found my stride, I'd discovered just how much I like being me, I was making friends as I drove round Oz, and I didn't want to change a thing. And then one day I woke up feeling utterly, utterly miserable, so bad that I had to force myself to get out of bed and start my exploration of the park's northern gorges.
The thing was I had absolutely no reason to be depressed. There was nothing bugging me, nothing had changed from the day before, and yet I'd gone from grinning the grin of the terminally happy to moping around my camp, wondering why on earth I was feeling so blue. It was obvious; my brain was simply having a bad day and had somehow got its chemicals out of sync. There couldn't be a psychological reason for my blues as there was nothing I could blame it on, and I was evidently just suffering from a mood swing that was totally beyond my control. And sure enough, by the end of the day I felt much happier, and by the next morning it was all in the past. I was back to being me again, a happy traveller and writer of copious waffle.
I'm telling you this because I desperately want to believe that the awful sinking feeling that's hit me in Timbuktu is the same thing. I want it to be something that's beyond my control, which occurs naturally, and which goes away quickly. But I also want to get it down on paper, because it's also possible that it is down to something tangible, and if so it's interesting to document it, if only so we can all have a good laugh at my expense when I'm back in the land of real ale, pies and gravy. Here are four things that might have something to do with my batch of blues... or they might not. Only time will tell.
A Soppy Interlude
First up, I might be six weeks into my trip, but I still can't stop thinking about Peta, my girlfriend, my best friend and my soul mate. I've never tried to conduct a long-distance relationship before – the last time I went travelling the only long distance was between me and the merest hint of anything remotely approaching a relationship – but this time it's different. I've whinged about this before and I'll probably whinge about it again, so forgive me, but I miss my girlfriend more than I thought possible.
My morning routine goes something like this. My brain wakes up, and five minutes later I manage to slump into something resembling consciousness (I'm not one of life's morning people, as anyone who has been unlucky enough to meet me before midday will confirm). I open one eye – my left eye – and assuming the sky hasn't fallen in and killed half the planet, I gently pull the eyelids of my right eye apart; I have to do this because my right eye suffers from Recurrent Corneal Erosion Syndrome, which means that if I open it in the normal fashion, it hurts like buggery. (That's just a colloquialism; I can't vouch for its authenticity.)
I then wonder where Peta is. She's not there in the bed next to me, so I presume she's not round at my flat today, but I'll probably see her later. I then root around the bed trying to find my teddy bears – hell, yes, I'm 32, I sleep with teddy bears, and I don't give a damn – but instead of the usual suspects I find the little Snowman my sister sent me when I was in New Zealand in 1996, and the floppy little Panda that Peta made for me for this trip. And that's when it hits me that there is no Peta in my bed, not for a whole year, and it hurts more than my Recurrent Corneal Erosion Syndrome ever does.
On bad days I realise this before I've gone through my morning routine, and I sit up, suddenly hit by a huge sense of distance, followed by a huge sense of pain in my right eyeball. On these days I can at least blame the welling-up in my eyes on my syndrome. I haven't thought of a good excuse for all the other mornings.
Bring It On!
Second, I've been talking to lots of people about West Africa, and I have yet to find anyone who has anything really positive to say. I find plenty of people who think it's a reasonably interesting region, and plenty of people who don't like it at all, but I haven't met anyone who raves about it or who would recommend it as a must-see part of the world. On the other hand I keep bumping into people who rave about Asia, especially India, and I think back to the happy times I had there, waking up every day to something else that would completely blow my mind. After six weeks in West Africa I'm still waiting for something – anything – to make my jaw drop, and I'm not alone. It seems that most people find that travelling here is difficult, tiring, expensive and devoid of life-changing experiences.
I desperately want to enjoy West Africa, and I don't want to simply jack it in because of the vague hope that East and Southern Africa will be better (I meet plenty of people who rave about the likes of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana and so on). It's just that after six weeks I really thought I'd have something amazing to report, and I genuinely haven't. It's been OK so far, but nothing to write home about, which rather neatly brings me to my third point...
Perhaps because of the area, but perhaps not, I'm suffering from artistic apathy. I've set myself the target of writing a reasonable amount about my trip, and I'm meeting my target in terms of the number of words I'm writing. The only problem is that it's not flowing, and I'm not that enamoured with what I'm churning out. I'll keep on writing, because it's a good discipline to do so, but I have yet to put the finishing touches to anything that I'm really proud of. So far it's all been travel writing by numbers, and it's not that satisfying.
I'd like to think this is because I haven't had much to write about, and my enforced work ethic means I have no choice but to churn out the same old stuff. But I'm not so sure if this isn't a cop-out, because plenty of writers manage to wax lyrical about places far duller than West Africa, and if I can't pull out a bunch of interesting threads from somewhere like Mali, home to the legendary Timbuktu, then will I actually be able to produce anything from this trip other than a load of old waffle that simply gets slapped up onto my website along with all the other travel writing I've done?
I guess only time will well, but so far I don't feel I've achieved any targets other than quantitative ones. I even scrapped an article the other day – the first version of my piece on Mopti – because it turned out to be little more than vitriol, written to exorcise the long bus journey and a lack of sleep. I sincerely hope this turns out to be a reflection on West Africa rather than me, but whatever the reason, I'm not yet inspired to write about this trip.
Finally, and here's the really paranoid one, I've been talking to people about the anti-malarial pill Lariam. I've been taking my weekly tablet for nine weeks now, and it doesn't affect me at all... I think.
I've now met three people who've had to stop taking Lariam because of serious side-effects, and a whole load more who've said they wouldn't touch it in the first place. The three who reported side-effects each took it for a couple of months and thought they were fine, but then they started getting depressed and moody, and in one case the Lariam even caused hallucinations. I don't really think I'm suffering from Lariam-induced mood swings, but it's always a possibility, and I have to at least consider it.
The problem with this theory is a psychological one. When I was walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I noticed a kind of group psychosis that affected all the walkers above a certain altitude. Above 3000m people can start to suffer from altitude sickness, and one result is that everyone starts to believe that they've got the symptoms. It becomes the subject of every conversation from dawn to dusk, and people discuss the possibilities so much that it's no wonder everyone is suddenly paranoid about headaches, cramps, breathing difficulties and so on.
The same is true of Lariam. Those who aren't taking it suck in their breath when they hear you're on it, as it has a fearsome reputation. Those who are taking it say they've found no problems so far... but they always add the 'so far' part. And then there are those who've reacted badly, and their stories simply add fuel to the fire.
Meanwhile, I have a bad day, and I worry that it might be the pills. It's weird.
Honestly, it's pathetic, really. The fact is that I'm only six weeks into my adventure of a lifetime, I'm on budget and on schedule, the best is definitely yet to come, and I've still got an entire continent to explore at my leisure. This whole trip exists because I wanted to do it, and because I decided to fly to Africa, and here I am whinging about feeling a little bit blue. What on earth do I have to be miserable about? Nothing, that's what.
Still, I felt bloody terrible this morning, I still do, and I can't pin down the cause. I could be feeling unimpressed with West Africa and unable to write because I'm missing Peta, and the Lariam could have nothing to do with it; I could be obsessing about missing home and unable to care about writing or travelling because the Lariam is screwing with my head; West Africa could actually be rubbish, and not distracting enough to stop me thinking about home or inspiring enough to produce good prose; it could be a combination of any of the above; or, like in Australia, I could just be suffering from a temporary glitch, one that will naturally go away. Depression doesn't come clearly labelled with causes and effects, so I guess I might never know exactly what's going on.
Still, if it doesn't go away, I'll stop taking the Lariam; if that doesn't work, I'll fly to Kenya as quickly as possible; and if that doesn't work, I can always come home. God knows it'd be better than waking up again with lead in my veins.