It’s Just Up There, Burning

It’s Just Up There, Burning

Journalism is nothing if not the beautiful license to find stories. Beautiful ones, tragic ones, ones that make you think. Sniffing them out like some sort of literary bloodhound and bringing them back, tail wagging. What happens to afterwards at the hands of the editor doesn’t bear thinking.  But the hunt is good fun.  In between snuffling for stories in Grahamstown’s surrounds, I have been making headway on typing up the full account of Cape to Cairo travels. Twenty thousand words later and I am only in Zambia, with a world of places and people that are a delight to revisit again. My eyes wonder about my hands as they wrote the notes the fingers now gleefully tapdance into the world. Taken from the pages that saw Ethiopia, scrawled somewhere between Bahir Dar and Gonder, this is a piece I have yet to reach in my transcription. It’s one that has returned to my mind often since coming back.

One reluctant soul is manhandled in by the werewolf’s assistant – only to leap out of the side door at the next stop.

…The minibus arrives at the ‘hotel’ shortly after we do. It’s in an unexpectedly fair state, though driven by a muscled, rough looking young driver with an unsettling habit of baring his teeth and growling at pedestrians passing outside his window. but for a lack of hair, he has the unsettling power and aggression of a werewolf. Inside, the smell of fresh pine needles waft up from a floor covered in, well, pine needles. It’s a cunning car freshener that I am surprised is not in wider use. All hopes for a quick and uninterrupted journey to Gonder are dashed afterr boarding, as the vehicle putters around town for an eternity, trying to collect enough fares to Gonder to make the trip worthwhile. Some passengers seem undecided about whether or not to get into the werewolf’s vehicle. One reluctant soul is manhandled in by the werewolf’s assistant – only to leap out of the side door at the next stop. Morning has pushede well into the afternoon before we finally pull out of Bahir Dar and the journey begins.

For the most part, the journey is uneventful as our pine-scented minibus voyages higher and higher towards the Simien mountains. I preoccupy myself imagining histories behind the passengers inside with us. The father taking his son home. The small businessman, returning to his store with goods from the market. The scrawny assistant to the werewolf. Jonathan, for his part, is reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, the now-ragged book that I had brought from Cape Town. Climbing into the mountains as the day begins to end is a good time to be living in my head as I absent-mindedly watch the sun drawing down to the mountaintops. I can’t help but reflect that in very few days, Jonathan and I will part company and I shall return to my traveling world as it was before we met in Addis Ababa. Alone once more with my thoughts as I cross the final deserts to Cairo. I have a sense of quietly excited peace at the idea. That the bittersweet final chapter of my adventure must inevitably be written. I don’t want to finish, but neither could I continue forever.

Climbing into the mountains as the day begins to end is a good time to be living in my head

Or could I? There are things I miss and look forward to seeing again at home. Friends, family and my future life in Grahamstown. But in the quiet times, unharrassed by children shouting “One Birr!”, I have found a beautiful sense of presence in the world these days. Drawn into relief in the orange mountains as they begin to catch fire under the sun’s descent. If this journey must end, then I only hope that this feeling is something that I am able to take back with me. There is also, finally,  the catharsis that arriving in Cairo must surely bring. Bittersweet, for sure, but powerful. That sense of end is something that I cannot resist creating and exploring for myself. Stronger yet than any end to any journey I have taken.

The horizon rewards my thoughts with an ending of its own. A giant, red fireball now silhouettes the mountains and the trees in a manner I had never thought possible outside of National Geographic. It’s an ending of today, the beginning of the inexorable shift towards the end of my travel. “It’s strange to think of it there” Jonathan, looks up from Siddhartha at the sunset, “One giant, burning planet.”

It’s strange indeed.