I'm one of life's compulsive planners, and I'm not too proud to admit it. I travel with a computer and I'm endlessly creating fancy schedules of places I'd like to visit, all laid out in the kind of spreadsheet accuracy that would make your average flower-child traveller squirm. In a sense I run my travelling like a workplace.
This is for two reasons. The first is that I like it this way; I've always been tidy, as is evident from my backpack, which is home to lots of plastic bags, each containing various categories of item, from the clothes bag to the toiletries bag to the bag of maps, books, pens and camera film. It makes things fit better as well as keeping things dry (though I've only seen rain once since arriving in Africa, back in the Gambia), and it means I don't have to keep pulling everything out of my bag just to find my insect spray, toothbrush or map of Mali. I know exactly where everything is, and that makes me happy.
The second reason is that when you're travelling, you have a lot of time to kill, especially in Africa. If you add up all the time spent waiting for buses, waiting for tours, waiting for visas and waiting for banks, I reckon I spend about one week out of every four killing time. There's a lot more waiting around in Africa than, say, Asia, and it's good to have something constructive to do, especially if you're like me and get bored at the drop of a hat. To stop my brain leaking out of my ears while waiting for things to happen, I spend my time planning.
Planning is basically where the fun starts. I've got three hefty guidebooks sitting in a bag in the bottom of my pack – one for West Africa, one for East Africa and one for Southern Africa – and although they add significant weight, it's worth it because I can spend lots of happy hours reading about the places I hope to visit, playing with various itineraries and chopping and changing my plans at the press of a button. The only problem with all this is Africa.
After two months of juggling schedules, reading guidebooks and talking to other travellers, it's obvious that Africa doesn't lend itself well to careful planning. Indeed, it doesn't lend itself well to someone with my mentality, as the concept of 'having a plan' seems pretty redundant here. The hardest part of my trip so far has been the growing realisation that I've got to change my approach if I'm to avoid a whole world of hurt. Coming to Africa with a plan is not only pointless, it's downright frustrating.
The biggest difference between the way I think and the way Africa thinks is in timing. In Africa, the answer to the question 'When will the bus leave?' is 'When it's full.' The answer to the question 'When does the meeting take place?' is 'When everyone gets here.' And the answer to the question 'Is it possible to leave here tomorrow morning, travel to this place, spend a day there, then move on to here, check out this village and this park, and end up in this city before the end of the week?' is 'Inshallah,' which literally means 'God willing,' but effectively means 'God knows.' Basically, things don't run like clockwork in Africa, because that's not how people think. Punctuality isn't an alien concept, it's simply irrelevant.
I've experienced this before, notably in India. IST, which stands for 'Indian Standard Time' and which refers to the single time zone that illogically covers the entire country, is locally referred to as 'Indian Stretchable Time' because things don't happen to a fixed schedule. You can buy timetables for India's amazingly huge train network, and sometimes some trains do run on time, but unlike in the West, where a late train causes mutters among commuters, in India you just wait; the train will arrive when the train arrives, and that's how everything works.
In West Africa, though, the way time works is even more bizarre than in India, and to help it all make sense the locals have developed the amazing ability to switch themselves off while waiting for something. You often see people at the bus depots sleeping where they sit, and even when the bus departs, rattling along potholed roads like a tin barrel rolling down a hill, people manage to sleep, squashed into convoluted shapes that would prevent a pampered westerner from even contemplating forty winks. I really wish I could do that; it would make waiting so much more interesting.
But instead I plan. I read the guidebooks again and again, soaking up the background on countries I might visit, working out the best places to see in the time I have, creating mental pictures of the lines I might get to draw on my map. I know it's pointless and I know the concept of African time will instantly render any plans I make obsolete, but I still do it. It's like being Sisyphus rolling his boulder up to the top of the hill only to have it fall back down again.
No doubt the locals think I'm mad, which I guess makes us even.