Following the deaths of her two best boys in quick succession, Iphgenia Baal skipped town, travelling to north and east Africa, taking in protestor-occupied squares, empty deserts, crucifix-festooned cities and vertiginous mountains, in search of answers.
“It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
I have always liked vanishing. As a kid, I put myself in cupboards, or under the stairs. I liked being tucked away. As I grew, so did my fancy for disappearing. I have spent weeks at a time seeing nobody, speaking to nobody (at least nobody I know). When I’ve emerged and been asked what I’ve been up to, I consistently find it difficult to account for the vast wilderness of thought recently tramped through, and invariably give a shrugged, non-committal response. Writing is always a good answer.
I went to Africa in January 2012 to escape the aftermath of death. My life had become a grim parade in the company of brutes, pitching from one tragedy to the next. There was so much awful shit going on that I felt I couldn’t do justice to each individual event. I was freaked out by the funerals and harangued by the barrage of splurged Facebook updates: competitive sentences that referred to men who would’ve happily gone into fist fights brandishing broken bottles, as sweet angles (the misspelling allowing some light reprieve).
I took two empty notebooks to fill, and books to read. One of which was Heart of Darkness. I hadn’t bought it especially, the way wankers buy Shantaram for their tour of the sub-continent. I’d read the first pages of Conrad’s slim volume months ago, confused the seaman’s game of one-upmanship that covers the first three pages with the plot of Moby Dick, and left it, aware of the book’s existence as something I should read. (I still haven’t read Moby Dick, but did listen to it as a podcast audio book with different people reading each chapter. I downloaded the lot and listened to two-thirds of the story cut up by iTunes, before getting to a chapter read by Tony Blair. I jacked in the rest.) I did not know Heart of Darkness mirrored my own journey towards the equator. Nor did I yet realise how expansive the darkness of its title really was.
The first place I went was Cairo. Not having watched the news, I wasn’t all that concerned about rioters or military police. In my mind, I was going to the Egypt of pyramids and oases (still available around the upheaval, even if the museums are shut). I caught the last plane out of Heathrow, at 22.45 hours and flew through the night. Out the window, I watched London’s lights go out, and imagined what it would be like if death was like some people say it is – a physical ascension out of your body that lets you linger, for some moments, in the same arena as you’ve lived your life; allowing you to check in on those you love before eventually dissipating into some unknown realm. Up in the sky, the clouds were dense and I couldn’t see the moon; the only guiding lights were the ones flashing at the tips of the wings of the plane, reflected back by the clouds.
When we started our descent we hit turbulence, but it was more the going down than the bumpiness that made me imagine the descent into hell. Although I don’t believe in hell (except on Earth) I was sure that, if there was one, at least one of my broken-bottle brandishing friends would be going there – not because he was a bad man, but because he was an unfulfilled, frustrated man, someone who hadn’t been able to grab on to himself (yet). Scared, and greedy, and stopped dead in his tracks before he could have done anything about it. He was trying though. Sort of.
We landed in darkness, me scribbling away in the first of the notebooks, but by the time I got through Arrivals, it was day. I caught a train to Tahrir Square. Emerging into the street, I was met by a squadron of riot police in turtle formation, firing teargas. I saw them clearly for only a second before my eyes, nose and mouth started streaming. I dropped my bags, crying and coughing, before being heaved to my feet and sticky liquid was thrown at my face. I was lead off the square and into a side street, where my vision cleared to reveal a funny, smiling face brandishing a beer bottle at me. The man was carrying both my bags and speaking to me in a stream of assorted languages.
“English”, I said.
“Beer,” he said, “works more than water to get the gas out of your eyes. Hotel?”
I offered to carry at least one of my bags, but he refused (throughout the trip, I was never allowed to carry my own luggage).
When I got to my hotel, my delayed arrival meant they had given my room away. “No matter,” said my new friend. “I know a place.”
He led me for two city blocks, to a hotel belonging to his friend, whose care he left me in. I sat in the lobby, waiting for a room to be cleaned, talking to the porter. He told me that the day before, a group of Japanese tourists had arrived, and when he had given them their keys he’d watched as they went to the doors of their rooms and peered through the keyholes, then looked at the keys, then through the keyholes again. A few had tried to insert the keys, then pushed the doors without turning them.
“They didn’t know how to use them,” he said. “In Japan, they don’t have keys, they only have cards now.”
He laughed. It was funny, but I was tired, and I wasn’t sure it was true: no keys in Japan? Really?
I spent a week in Cairo, mostly in Tahrir Square, listening to women shriek about injustice by day, and going round the camps, festooned with pictures of people’s dead friends, by night. I liked the way the Egyptians revolted. Almost everyone I spoke to at Tahrir Square had a job – some camped out constantly, but most turned up in their lunch breaks to throw some stones at the police, or a window of a government building, before going back to work.
My next leg was a long bus ride to an oasis, during which the fat man sitting next to me grabbed my tits, then bought me a piece of cake from a pit-stop cafe as an apology, which I accepted. I spent one night at a Bedouin set up in an oasis, run by a man with as many sons as camels. I was fed on apricots and dates and olives and eggs, and smoked hash in cups under the stars.
Next morning I set off with one of the Bedouin boys, and three Muslim girls on a pilgrimage from Turkey. One was on her period, and moaned and writhed the whole way. The Bedouin boy drove a 4×4 for miles through dusty nothingness.
Back in London, as an attempt to grow up, I had taken two driving lessons. Out here in the middle of nowhere, a licence hardly seemed necessary. It was an automatic 4×4 and, short of flipping over, there was nothing that could go wrong. I asked if I could drive. Once behind the wheel, I put my foot to the floor. At first, driving over burnt gravelly stones made it hard to pick up speed, but this wasn’t like crawling through Camden, or Westminster, at 20 mph, mirroring and signalling through a never-ending series of T-junctions. I went faster and faster, out in the Sahara, rattling along until I hit the sand, where all friction went, and we went freewheeling over the top of the dunes and nose-diving back to the bottom; like sailing a boat.
We spent the night under the stars. A desert fox tried to steal my Reeboks, and I wrote a long scrawled something, which, when I looked at it again in the morning, I couldn’t read. The fact that it was illegible, I decided, was because it wasn’t supposed to be read.
The sun rose on a lump of stone. “What does it look like?” the Bedouin boy asked.
It looked like a whale, a cartoon-like creature, possibly smiling.
It was a whale. Where we were, near the border with Libya, had once been the bottom of the sea. It is different from the rest of the desert, softer and brighter, and just like an undulating marine floor. There are fossilised coral reefs burnt out by the sun everywhere, and the remains of a big blue whale is so huge you can walk inside and carve into its ribs, which I did. I carved my initials – IB, then BT and GG – deep, but the stone was so soft, I didn’t think they’d last long.
I came out of the whale and into the sun. This, I thought, looking around, was a patch of ground that had once been so alive but had now finished its work, and lay scorched and bare, for me to project my fantasies onto without the burgeoning business of life getting in the way.
My next night flight took me to Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. On the first day, I was almost pickpocketed. I caught the guy with his hand in my bag. Unfazed by my lack of knowledge of my surroundings, or the gun-toting policeman, who seemed to side with the thief, I kicked off, the way I would in London.
A crowd gathered.
“Farangi, farangi” people murmured at me. Meaning “whitie”.
Later I learned to respond with, “si farangi”, “not white”, which became more effective the darker I got.
Addis is purgatory – a very hopeful place, and so like London (as I told the pickpocket), but maybe a London of 150 years ago, with cars. There was none of what there’d been in Cairo, where being a girl alone after dark is trouble. In Addis, you can drink yourself silly and wander about on your own without any real danger. Also, I had friends here, friends of my dead friend, who could speak freely about what they knew of him because they were outside the parade.
“Well naughty,” the friend of my dead friend said. “A naughty naughty brer.”
I visited Haile Selassie’s grave – a black marble box with lion’s feet, guarded by an old, almost-blind, and very silly monk. Later on my travels, telling rastas in Shashemane (the piece of land that Haile Selassie gave to displaced Africans who wanted to repatriate) about this visit, I was met with angry denials. At first confused, I discovered the reason is that rastas think Haile Selassie is still alive, hidden out in the wilderness perhaps, and news of his grave, as part of the spectacle, is offensive. Behind the church where Selassie’s black marble grave sits on its lion’s feet, is a one-room museum filled with biblical parchments in Amharic, ornately tiered crowns and threadbare velvet suits. Suits worn to death. I wonder if the Queen of England’s clothes have worn patches on the elbows, and threads spilling out of the seams. The silly monk showed me round, and went into ecstasies when I was able to identify simple biblical characters like Noah or Moses in the stained glass. While I cannot say that I am an advocate of orthodox anything in life, the Orthodox habits practised in Ethiopia touched me. It seemed less about pomp and glory and more about private individual interaction with the thousands of rickety crucifixes poking up out of the city’s skyline.
I went south, to the source of the Nile, and jumped in the water (to the delight of other bathers, who all told me I was “the first farangi to get into the water in 23 years.”) I went further south, to a small patch of jungle, where natural hot springs had been collected into Olympic style pools beneath the jungle canopy. Getting into the water, I was more aware of my pale skin than ever before, being nearly naked and everyone else being so black. I lingered in the shallow end, nervous, shy and sweating. It took me some moments to remember that I could swim (no one else could). I broke into a front crawl and did the fastest length I could, which made me friends immediately. Skinny boys tried to make me make them float, to no avail.
I went north to the churches dug out from the ground, and the scorched black land beyond them. The most uninhabitable place on earth, apparently, where nothing grows. It was not like the desert, I was told, it had always been like this. A real impenetrable wilderness; the sort of place where saints and soldiers arrive and escape, unseen.
Tanzania was crunch time. It was here that I had been heading (overshooting Conrad’s Nile now, and back to my own business). I had come to Tanzania to meet someone who I had spoken to on the phone many times, but never met. The business partner of one of my dead friends, a man busy laundering drug money out of sight of the British authorities. His appearance at the funeral had been brief, and he had been totally absent from the mourning hurrah, but had once been on the other end of my dead friend’s phone 24-7, and I wanted to know who he was.
He had put me up with his cousin, who lived out there, but his arrival was delayed, and delayed again, so I went to Zanzibar, hired a moped and drove across the island. I got stopped by the police. First they wanted money, for nothing, then one policeman, called Robert, said that if he could come with me on the back of the bike, I wouldn’t have to pay them anything. My outrage at the blackmail only made Robert like me more. He let me go when his phone started ringing. I started the moped to the tinny sound of Richie Spice blazing marijuana pon de corner, keep me calmer, make me smarter…
“I’ll be seeing you later”, he said, as I drove away.
Sure enough, when I got to where I was going, I had my passport nicked, and who should come to my rescue but Robert. The whole village and me and my moped got in the back of the police truck and went en masse to the police station. I was there for hours, during which suspicion moved to every single member of the village, before it was decided that no one had done it and I should go. Robert told me he wanted to marry me and that he would find my passport. Then I watched him kick a kid in rags down the stairs. Robert texted me daily throughout the rest of my time on a Tz sim card. I didn’t get my passport back.
I went back to Dar es Salaam and spent a week with the man I’d come to see, and his cousin. Both of them are originally from Sudan, but their skin colour hardly disguised them. Here, they were white – here to do business. We spent the week talking, mostly in an air-conditioned 4×4 that propped us up in the traffic as it ferried us between chicken shops, shopping malls, various businesses they owned or had invested in and a site being cleared to knock up cheapo non-earthquake proof versions of luxury condo homes. Neither of them got in the ocean even once. My beach buddy in Dar was a girl called Ayan. When I met her, she was shrouded in a headscarf (that at least showed her face). We spent early mornings together by the ocean. On the first day, she couldn’t swim and didn’t smoke. By the time I left, she was screaming in the breakers and blowing smoke rings at early rising fishermen.
“Don’t,” she told me, “tell my husband.”
I left for the north. Avoiding Kilimanjaro (too expensive), I walked through another mountain set, one village at a time. As I walked, foothills rang with the shouts of people I couldn’t see. Here I was mzungu (European). If I could insist on not being white in Ethiopia, where people are paler, in Tz, there was little point. People were scared of me. Some people that I tried to speak to, especially the old ones, tried to kick me away and screamed. My ears popped and I went to see a witch doctor, a giant old woman who gave me two powders, one that looked like coal and another that looked like flowers, to sprinkle in water and drink. They worked.
The road went up and up into clean and cooler climates, then down again into mosquito-ridden, sweltering hellholes, where no life comes out until nightfall. I made friends with packs of wild children. A lot of them are crazy, or retarded, and because they don’t have mental hospitals out there, they just run with the pack. Almost every gang had a couple of kids in tow who would squeak at me, or make fucking gestures with their hands while dribbling; their escorts laughed, and told me not to worry, so I didn’t. But even when I’d made friends, I was still mzungu. I tried to tell people that it was more racist in Africa than it was in the UK.
“You could come to London,” I said, “and within 10 years, or less, call yourself a Londoner. The wild children and the old men shrugged. “But,” I continued, “I could live here my whole life and I’d always be mzungu.”
Yes, the wild children agreed.
The imbalance came into view, simply from me being there. I could come here from there, but they couldn’t go there from here. You could hear it in the questions they asked, and in the way they treated me. Later that night I realised that even while I scratched away under my mosquito net in the heavy damp heat, I was still right there, back where I ever was.
By the time I went home, the notebooks were full of mad memories. Useless. The darkness was too much; it obliterated everything. Of course, we all have this turbulent, suppressed shit going on, but I live in a ‘civilised’ world, where honesty is received like the inexperienced lies of a toddler. A world of text messages and advertising, which once you are in, there’s no getting out of.
Absolved of what I put on paper, I returned to London. The two notebooks I had filled were supposed to be the basis of my third book, but this wasn’t to be. Both volumes were eventually shredded (not by me, but by a psycho in a jealous rage). Instead, I wrote a different book; a book that speaks only of the surface of things and a lightness of heart. I opened up my email and brought old Blackberry phones back to life in an attempt to salvage as many instant message exchanges between me and my dead friend as possible. This would be the book – a book of times and dates and information backed up on servers, which someone has to read between the lines of to find soldiers and saints, still lost in scorched landscapes, still hoping to bump into one another.