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Tales from the back of the eyelids

Africa

Travelling is an activity which is exclusive to the young. This is not because older people don't want to travel. They simply can't. By definition, travelling is something only youth can do. Anyone over thirty-five trying to travel either ends up going on holiday or becomes a vagrant. It is as impossible to travel once one reaches middle age as it is to become young again.

I'll explain myself. For young people, travelling is a way of looking for meaning in the apparent meaninglessness of existence. It is a quest for greater things. It is more than an accumulation of sensory experiences. It is a path to the highest levels of enlightenment. It doesn't matter whether there really is a path or not. Young people should travel anyway. Even if they don't find any answers at least they can be satisfied that they looked.

Now, if this is the case, why can't older people also look for answers? This has to do with the stages we pass through in life. If someone middle-aged is without property, a responsible job and a family of their own, that person doesn't have anything. By then there is nothing else to be had. Give up those things and all that is left is aimlessness. At that age there can be no search for meaning, no matter how hard one tries.

You might think I am cynical. But, really, I am not. Perhaps more than anyone else, I have a desire to travel again. However, I know that at my age no one can travel. I know because I've tried it.

More than twenty-five years ago, when I was a young man, I travelled in Africa, intending to cross the continent along its length from Egypt down to the Cape. In those days all I had was a rucksack on my back and only enough money to get by on. I roughed it, but I didn't mind because that was the whole point. I was going to take my time, exploring, seeking and learning by living life as it really was, unbundled from the suffocating wrapping which had always protected me. I was, for the most part, successful. But in one major way I failed. In central Africa, after six months of travelling, I fell ill. Without thorough treatment the illness would have been serious, so I took a cheap flight back home to Europe.

One stage of my life, then, remained uncompleted. So a couple of years ago, I decided to fly back to Africa to finish off my journey. I was going to continue on down to the Cape and, on the way, discover those fascinating countries I had failed to visit the first time. As the aeroplane crossed the Mediterranean and passed over the Sahara I was exhilarated. Wasn't it amazing to be going back after all these years? From my window I could see kilometres and kilometres of nothing but desert: a sandy expanse so vast that it stretched as far as the curved horizon. A few minutes later there was an abrupt change below me: a straight line on the ground marked the desert's boundary and all at once its light brown colour had been transformed into the deep green of the jungle. Only when the plane swooped in low to land did we see a break in the thick carpet of trees. The glass and steel buildings of the airport appeared out of nowhere, as if they had just risen up from under the surface of the swamp.

I was impressed with the airport from the moment I stepped off the plane. It was modern, air-conditioned and sparkling clean. The arrivals hall was a lofty structure held up by long, curved, metallic beams, and was capped by a great glass dome through which sunlight diffused into the whole space. In terms of amenities the airport was second to none. Moving walkways, shining escalators and exterior glass lifts sped passengers to different levels where they could find almost any service they could want. Luxury shops, restaurants and smart cafés filled the terraces. Stores and facilities of all kinds were dotted all over the airport: groceries, pharmacies, medical centres, prayer rooms, health and beauty parlours. There was even a multiplex cinema, a gym, and a swimming pool.

"It's incredible how Africa has changed!" I marvelled.

After passing through passport control my fellow travellers and I were taken in coaches to our hotel, which was a ten-minute drive away. While our luggage was being sorted out, we were given a welcome drink and then we were ushered towards the entrance of small auditorium on the ground floor. Inside we were greeted by a man wearing military fatigues and sunglasses whom I recognised from billboards I had seen in the terminal. He was the President of the Republic. He shook hands with each of us and told us that he was very pleased to see us because he and his country loved tourists.

After we had all taken our seats the President took to the podium. From an autocue he made a short speech about the airport and its grounds. Using an interactive projector he showed us a map which opened to panoramic views when he clicked on particular areas. He started with the hotel, which actually was part the airport complex. Joined to it, on the north side, was the Presidential palace which was an impressive building in baroque style, fronted by massive wrought iron gates. By prior arrangement this was open to visitors.

On the periphery of the grounds, the President went on, were six beautiful gardens - each one representing and exhibiting themes from one of the continents. These were connected to the large central park, which was adorned with tropical trees and flowers, artificial lakes, and architecturally-designed waterfalls. Along the western side of the park lay an 18-hole golf course. Within the park itself there was as an aqua centre (including an imitation beach with real sea water and generated waves), an extensive zoo and a sports centre with tennis, squash and basketball courts.

The President concluded by saying he was sure that we would have a unique and pleasant experience that we would remember for the rest of our lives. In addition to the scheduled activities, he cordially invited us to attend a special event - dinner with him and members of his government in the palace that evening.

Having finished, he asked, "Any questions?"

I stood up. "I would like to travel overland to the south of the country. What is the best way to do this?"

A slight frown appeared on the President's forehead, but this quickly disappeared. "Unfortunately," he said, "it is not possible at present to take trips outside of the airport boundaries. There is a high risk of attack by bandits which makes these areas too dangerous for foreigners." He paused to clear his throat. "However, the airport and its grounds are far nicer than the rest of the country and there really is no need to go anywhere else."

*

My hotel room was spaceous and unexpectedly grand. It was on the first floor and its window looked out on an immense courtyard - which was, I would guess, about the size of a football pitch. It was paved in marble and in the centre there was a gushing baroque fountain, cluttered with mythological figures and dancing cherubs. The buildings on the other three sides of the square belonged to the presidential palace.

After taking a shower I decided to go for a walk. I went back through the terminal building and followed the signs to the central park. It then took me a good half an hour 's walk through the park to get to the entrance of the Asia Garden at the other end.

The Japanese section, with its bridges and winding paths, was predictably irritating. But eventually, after crossing some flowerbeds I reached its furthest edge, which was hidden behind a dense growth of bamboo. This was a high chicken wire fence and couldn't be climbed. Undeterred, I went back to the entrance and clambered over the low wall next to the gate. I scrambled through a thicket of thujas, and before long came out into a more open area of larger trees. In a minute I arrived at the fence again. This time I walked along its length, away from the Asia Garden.

Where the fences of the Asia Garden and the central park met there were two endpoles. These were about twenty centimetres apart and were looped together horizontally with a strand of barbed wire. The loops made convenient footholds for me: if I didn't put my whole weight on the barbs they wouldn't pass through the soles of my shoes. I climbed up and leapt down to the other side.

Here the jungle began. No-one, of course, should ever wander aimlessly into a jungle, so I began to search along the fence for a track or trail. Before long I found one and began to walk down it. I wasn't, of course, thinking of setting off on my journey right there and then. That was something I was going to do the next day when I had my rucksack. If there were a village nearby I would return tomorrow and hitch my way out on a truck. Within fifteen minutes, however, I saw I had been deluding myself. I had come to a clearing and in front of me was a six metre high concrete barrier which was topped with wires marked "high voltage." A few paces from me was a guard's tower. A soldier leaned out from the top and gesticulated.

"Hey!" he shouted. I deliberately turned and began walking in the opposite direction. It was useless. In a short while a jeep pulled up beside me.

"Excuse me, Sir!" A voice said.

"Yes?" I turned to the vehicle, trying to look puzzled. There were two soldiers. One was the driver, who was talking to me. The other one had a submachine gun balanced on his lap.

"I'm afraid," the soldier said, "this is a restricted area. We'll have to take you back."

*

At the terminal I had a mug of cappuccino in the Stardust café. A young waitress there, Marie, had a nice smile so I began talking to her. She lived, it seemed, in the airport and hadn't been out since she left school.

"What about your family?" I asked. "Do you ever go to visit them?"

"Oh, I visit them all the time. They live in the airport too," she said.

"Don't you know anyone from outside?" I wondered.

"No," she replied. "I have lots of friends here. Anyone who wants to can come and live in the airport. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else?"

I could see that this young woman wasn't going to help me escape. I inquired about the President. Not surprisingly, Marie said he was fantastic. He had made everything here possible.

"Just look at the airport!" She effused. "Life before was hard. Now we are part of the modern world."

"Does the President himself ever leave the airport?" I asked.

"Of course he does," was her astonished reply. "He often visits foreign countries."

"Yes, but does he ever visit other parts of this country?"

"No, why should he? The airport is so much better than the rest of the country. Why should he want to go there?"

*

At seven that evening one of the President's assistants collected us at the visitors' entrance of the palace. He led us through a couple of lobbies and passageways until we came to the same courtyard I could see from my hotel room window. As it was a beautiful evening it had been decided to have the meal outside. A long table along one of the walls had been laid out with white tablecovers, blue Chinese porcelain and silver tableware. It was lit up by laterns hanging at intervals along its length and was surrounded by potted trees - to give, I suppose, an impression of intimacy in the huge square. Our seats were indicated by name cards, which were arranged alphabetically. It was my good fortune to find myself sitting next to the President who sat at the end of the table. "An excellent chance to make a good friend, " I thought to myself.

The President was a genial host with whom everyone felt at ease. The food was sumptuous and the wine delicious. As a result the mood at the table was excellent and the conversation flowed freely. As the meal went on I may have become too talkative. But no one seemed to mind.

Just before the dessert was brought to us, I noticed, through the potted trees, something moving at the opposite end of the courtyard. I looked harder, trying to make out what the movement was and realised it was a crowd of people. They were streaming out of a passage on one side of the courtyard into another passage on the other. At first I couldn't make out many details in the moonlight. But when I watched for longer I noticed that the people were half naked and were dressed in rags. As they walked they looked down towards their feet. Some soldiers were herding them at gunpoint. It seemed to me that the soldiers and the crowd were trying to be extraordinarily quiet, so as not disturb us while we were eating.

I asked the President: "Who are those people, Mr. President?"

At this question the President's expression instantly changed. The smile disappeared and, turning to me, he gave me fierce stare. All of a sudden he did not look like the affable man he had been up to that point. For a number of seconds he said nothing. Then he smiled again. This time, though, his smile was very toothy. After a moment's pause he said with careful emphasis: "We love tourists. We want them to come to our country." Having uttered this, he fell silent again. But he kept on smiling.

Despite the smile, the convivial atmosphere at the table had been ruined. All at once everyone looked irritable. The chatter dried up, and between forkfuls of dessert, my fellow travellers glared at me. Even though the conversation picked up again a little when the tea and coffee were served, the words seemed forced and unnatural. The whole evening had been spoilt. And I knew that that was my fault for asking such an inappropriate question.

*

At some time during the night I was woken up by a loud rumbling noise. At first I thought we were having earthquake because the room was shaking. The shuddering went on for a couple of minutes but by the time I pulled myself out of bed the noise had stopped. I went to the window and peered out. On the courtyard underneath, dressed in rags, were hundreds of dead bodies. They were lying sprawled out in all directions and positions: some on their backs, some on their fronts, some lying on top of others, some with gaping mouths, some with their limbs splayed at peculiar angles.

I spotted half a dozen soldiers, with their machine guns on their hips, picking their way through the corpses. Suddenly aware that I might be seen from below, I crouched and hid under the window sill. Huddled there, holding my knees, I wondered what I should do. Tell the President? That would be dangerous. Tell the other travellers? What good would that do? How about informing the media at home? Yes, but would they believe me? "I know," I told myself, "I'll take some photos."

Then I remembered. "Damn. My camera batteries aren't charged." In the darkness I rummaged through my luggage, looking for the charger. After a while I gave up and crawled back to the window. Cautiously I looked out over the sill. The bodies now had been arranged into orderly lines, each one lying on its back next to another one, its arms placed by its sides, its legs straightened out. Rows of wide eyes stared intently at the sky. In the half-light each body looked the same as the next one. I ducked down under the sill again.

"I know!" I thought. "I'll take pictures with my mobile phone. They probably won't be too clear, but I should get something." I grabbed my mobile which was on the bedside table. But when I had it in my hand, I hestitated. "What if someone were to check my mobile phone as I was leaving the country and found the photos? I could be killed!"

I looked out of the window again. The faces could no longer be seen: each body was covered from head to foot by a white sheet. I dived under the sill. "What am I going to do?" Then I had an idea: "I'll send the photos to my email address! Then I'll erase them from my mobile."

I put my head up over the sill one more time with my mobile phone in hand at the ready. But as I looked out, I saw that all the bodies had gone. The courtyard was empty.

I took five steps and got back into bed. What had happened there on the courtyard? I turned onto my side. In the end, perhaps nothing had happened. My head sank into the pillow. It hadn't been real, had it? Without a doubt, the bed was very comfortable. All things considered, it probably had been a dream. Yes, I'm sure that's what it was. And I drifted snugly back to sleep.

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