Getting Under Sail

Tripping on the Third World, a book excerpt

by Brannavan Gnanalingham

Getting Under Sail is a debut novel by frequent Werewolf contributor, Brannavan Gnanalingam (pictured far left). It tells the tale of three New Zealanders travelling overland from Morocco to Ghana, based on a trip 6to the region made by Brannavan in 2007/08. As he says : “The characters from the narrator to the two companions are fictionalised. Most of the events took place, but the reactions are my own imagination…” The trio go armed with stereotypes, a youthful obsession with Kerouac, and a guide book – and a sense of Western entitlement that is more than healthy for themselves, and those they encounter. The following two excerpts are the novel’s opening prologue, and from on the ground in Senegal…

December 10 2007: I have been told by many of my fellow New Zealanders that my upcoming trip through Africa is foolhardy, unplanned, dangerous, crazy – a whole host of frightening adjectives which seemed to connote violent death at the hands of strangers. But people telling you you’re crazy and actually feeling it are two different things. I didn’t think travelling through Africa was particularly unusual, but I did have a paucity of funds, only one lock and key, and a complete absence of foresight. Not that the people who warned me of my impending death knew that. They just thought that since I was going to Africa I was going to die. A cheery sentiment; it’d be like taking bets on a friend when he gets a motorbike as to when he’d die in a crash. I was tempted to be belligerent and ask “what’s the capital of Mauritania? Oh you don’t know? How do you know I’ll die there then?” But I wasn’t sure if I’d believe my own confidence. And my friend is still alive in spite of his motorbike. But now as middle age claws its way towards me, with my partial departure from the cloistered world of education, there seemed no better time to procrastinate facing that mysterious concept of the real world, and to explore the world for the sake of exploring.

It was my initial idea to go to Libya, to take photos of photos of Gaddafi, to travel over from Egypt, but apparently entry is limited to those with a tour guide. That required two things: money and organisation, both of which were too much effort to try and organise beforehand. I wanted to go somewhere like Ethiopia or Mali, so I booked my flights into Cairo. I didn’t want to follow the banality of a European cruise ship where rigorous day planning (often done months in advance) and queasy bellies ambush the concept of independent and improvised travel. Most of my friends, for some mysterious reason, take that option. I could go to that continent, Europe, with children, and with a much augmented cheque account. The idea of an organised tour group in which you get driven to photo opportunities didn’t appeal either. The rest of my friends take that option. I must have some pretty boring friends.

Maybe I had a romantic fixation with Kerouac, (not Sal, I was in love with the narrator), but I just wanted to do something that was totally unlike me. To no longer just talk about seeing the world, but to put down the binoculars and to pick up the microscope. But it wasn’t totally unlike me, because I couldn’t do it alone.

I had to convince similar, or at least unwitting, individuals. I found two, and two only, whom I’ve known since I was ten. We shared the type of comfortable familiarity which meant most conversations involved a restatement of nostalgic nothings and the coruscations of youth. “Remember” was the most common verb in our conversations, and was usually preceded by “do you” if we weren’t being grammatically lazy.

Other friends had the problem of gainful employment – and those who didn’t, hadn’t figured how to conjure up money out of nothing yet (short of social welfare or money trading). Most, however, weren’t interested as they were saving for their OE to London in three years’ time where they would look for flats with New Zealanders and spend their time subsisting with other New Zealanders and talk about how great it was getting out of New Zealand. One of the foolish romantics I convinced had a similar outlook in life to me, or at least was similarly cowardly. We spent a month debating where to go, throwing pins at the map, wishing we could throw it all to chance. He used his comfortable middle class position to protest about the exploitation of workers; his ultimate aim in life was to become a bus driver in order to damn the Man who demanded a use of his university education. He was a self-confessed hippie, albeit one with short hair and lacking his own swarm of flies. For him the trip was him getting back in touch with his African roots he left behind with the Missing Link and Lucy.

It was he who came up with the idea of some sort of directional plan: a two month trip from Morocco to Ghana on the road. We’d have to travel through Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, the Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo to get there. I was concerned as to whether we’d get there in time, and whether we were actually going to see anything with such a claustrophobic time-frame. But it appealed to my sense of repressed adventure.

Conveniently, and dangerously, the other person was the complete opposite, a much more conservative chap whose life had reached its stasis with a car, a career and a house. He was evidence of the weird friend groupings of high school, of the veers in outward directions friends go following the rigours of adolescence, and the choices you make with your subsequent educational paths. I wonder if I’d have been friends with him if I’d met him now, without that trail of bread crumbs. He was invited on the assumption that he wouldn’t come. More for politeness. But he decided to embark on our adventure, and we didn’t have the heart to tell him ‘actually we don’t want you here’. I had no idea why he decided to come – maybe to subvert people’s expectations of being the conservative one. I half-heartedly thought that it’d open his eyes, but in secret, I was concerned about the personality clash that ensues from the stress and vagaries of travel. The two lived together anyway (though in a landlord/tenant hierarchy), so there must be some sort of mutual tolerance. But I still don’t know what the trip planner, with his ideological edifices, was feeling travelling with someone who didn’t know about ideology. But since he was coming we didn’t want to scare him off either, so we didn’t tell him the plan. We simply told him to book a flight from Cairo to Morocco, which he refused to do because he thought we could get something cheaper on standby than our $400 tickets, but agreed to do so once we had already bought ours. I should also say that the other two are disgracefully cheap. I don’t usually trust cheap people as they value money too much. But in this case it was probably a good thing. I didn’t have much money, and the last thing I wanted to be doing while travelling was look for comfortable lodging. I might as well have stayed in Wellington.

I wanted to name the two after some symbolic Papua New Guinean city, but the only city I knew after Port Moresby was Rabaul. They had boring names, James and John, so boring that I have decided to invent names to go with them: “Ivan”, the intransigent Das Kapital sewing, soy milk drinking one (though he’s neither lactose intolerant, nor vegan) and Mitya, the mortgage paying one whose idea of a worldview is spouting off his recently deceased lawyer father’s opinions. I’m being facetious with the naming – lazy, unimaginative even – nor is there any sort of allegorical reason to do so, simply I was reading The Brothers Karamazov at the start of the trip, and those names seemed like they’d do (I am not the godly Alyosha). At least I had more imagination than their parents.

LATER…Much later …..

We were in Senegal, across the arbitrary, makeshift border between the countries. It was particularly strange coming from New Zealand, where the ocean delineated the borders. The concept of firing a cannon from a gunboat, like how The Gambia’s borders were formed according to legend for example, was incomprehensible. Of course, the Europeans fought for millennia for their borders, killing hundreds of millions of people in the process and formed the EU when they had two decades of peace. But Africa was stranger. The randomness of the separation with which Europe drew lines in the sand was breathtaking in its cruelty, with blindfolds, throwing cultural and ethnic differences into the air to settle on some later date.

We were getting our bearings, when some kids came up to us. They asked for “cent francs” (we had no CFA yet) or “un cadeau”. Ivan asked them where a “gare” for Saint Louis was, and they pointed in an arbitrary direction. Unanimously though, which was good enough. Ivan, Mitya and the Irish guy started moving away but I felt compelled to at least reward the boys, and gave a few surplus mandarins. After all, they saved us having to ask a taxi driver who would have charged us. Mitya turned around and said “bro, you’re just going to attract more.” A few more came over, curious, drawn like dogs to discarded meat, and Mitya said “let’s go”. The boys who had mandarins ran off, to enjoy the spoils in solitude. I walked off with about eight mandarins swinging in a black plastic bag.

We walked about a kilometre to the gare for Dakar and Saint Louis. It was the early afternoon, the time just after noon when the sun squinted its eyes at us. The road was an African stereotype, garish greenery, golden roads, women washing clothes in the river with their legs spread, skirts hitched and backs hunched, donkeys and goats ambling, a rhythm in the movements – basically everything I’d been conditioned to expect and therefore noticed when I saw something with a vague resemblance.

The trip to Saint Louis was meant to take an hour and a half. Prospective drivers mobbed us and we found vans cost between 2500 and 3500 CFA for a place. This one man offered us 2000 for all, including luggage, which appeared to be a good price.

Ivan asked “when will the sept-place leave?”

“What do you mean, when?” the astonished driver replied. “It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up.”

I chuckled but none of us really processed the true implications of that response. We got into the sept-place as it was bereft of the sunlight, and a place to remain seated away from the gaze of the touts.

Despite that, the other drivers kept coming back with 2500 franc offers. We’d been sitting there for half an hour, when one of the original drivers came to us and said “2500 plus luggage for my place. We are leaving soon. You are going to wait here for a long time.”

“No it’s ok”. We weren’t going to cave. It was pure stubbornness, the type of intransigence that led to empires crumbling.

“You might not leave until night.”

“No,” Ivan replied, a little disconcerted.

500 CFA equals one dollar.

I don’t know why we were so stubborn. Perhaps it was pride in not going back, in not showing any weakness to exploit. Maybe we were sorry for our driver, who seemed decent with his tight jaw, thin nose, and wide-set, but narrow eyes. They were all shadowed by a faded, well-loved cap. Maybe we were just comfortable. That van which solicited us left soon after, and we sat there waiting.

There was a flurry of activity outside the whole time, beggars thrusting their hands through our windows, more out of boredom rather than with any expectation, our eyes refusing to give them any false promise. Sellers were trying to sell meaningless things for meaningless prices, and drivers swarmed, ensnaring potential clients.

The only problem was that potential clients stopped being ensnared. The three hours “lunch break” halted the stream of people. A big brood was meant to come through at 3, but it was not until 4 that people started choking through. Suddenly the other driver was prophetic, or it was simply an experienced commentary on our inexperience.

Our driver was standing back. We were willing him to be more proactive in finding clients, to be as aggressive as the other drivers. The others’ vans were being filled quicker than ours, and when the Irish man saw two of his friends, another Irish man and his French wife, in a van that was ¾ full, we decided to enquire that van’s price. The driver offered us 3000 CFA for everything, so we gathered up our bags from where they were thrown up top and joined that van.

Our original driver reacted as if we were punching him without warning. Slowly, stunned, bewildered. He soon found his full voice, his anger etched like a photograph. He demanded some part payment, but we refused saying “it’s business”. He eventually gave up and went back to trying to populate his now sparsely-populated van. It was only when we were pulling out in our new van, after waiting for four hours, that I realised I’d left the mandarins behind.

– Photos by Garth Prosser

Getting Under Sail is being launched by Lawrence & Gibson at the Garden Bar, 13 Dixon Street, Wellington on Thursday 24 March at 6pm, along with Richard Meros “Privatising Parts”, a sequel to his “On the Conditions And Possibilities Of Helen Clark Taking Me as Her Young Lover”.