Mada in a snapshot

Melancholic lemur

Melancholic lemur

When people think about Madagascar, they think about cute lemurs and huge baobabs. They imagine an exotic land where tourists feed themselves lavishly on papaya and pineapple for breakfast and treat themselves to coco rum as the sun goes down. They imagine green forests and hidden waterfalls. And they certainly cannot pronounce the name of its capital: Antananarivo.

All of this rhymes indeed with Madagascar. But there is so much more to find there. Here is a crash-course into Madagascar and why it left an indelible mark on me.

Madagascar is the world fourth biggest island and is located in the Indian Ocean off the African South-East coast, at Mozambique level. Its separation from the continent makes it truly unique: because of its isolated position, close to Africa yet surprisingly Asian in many respects, Madagascar is home to species that have developed there and nowhere else in the world. In spite of its abundant diversity, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on the Planet. Having suffered 90% deforestation, it struggles to preserve its unique wildlife on the one hand and feed its population and provide them with essential resources on the other. It is a challenged land. It is often the doom of beautiful countries to be also needy.

Cherry on the top, the country does not exactly receive support from its government and corruption is the true currency, much stronger than the Malagasy ariary that make you a millionaire when you convert them from dollar or euro. Because of instability, poverty, poor governance and everything that can go wrong in a God forsaken country, Madagascar tends to be less appealing to the ill-informed tourists.

With no reported traffic lights or street names, Tana (short and affectionate for Antananarivo) could give headaches even to a GPS. A European driver would have to navigate on a sea of hens, zebus (local cows), and humans who constantly feel the urge to cross from one side of what we shall call the “road” to the other, which to me looks more like a suicidal desire than anything else. Yes, Tana is the human jungle.

However, have no fear: Madagascar is an amazingly beautiful place, the sole possessor of some of the world’s one-of-a-kind treasures, a country of farmers and hard-working people. If you love nature, discovery, a  bit of adventure, if the taste of dust does not frighten you and if you hunger for new, extraordinary experiences, Madagascar can hardly disappoint.

What Madagascar desperately needs is tourism and jobs. With tourism, jobs opportunities are created. Most of the restaurants and hotel owners are still French people, but they do employ locals. An increased awareness that tourism brings in money will hopefully also educate people more on the reforestation programmes that have reportedly started throughout the island.

The reality as I see it is rather simple: no lemur, no tourism. Which means there is no other choice but to battle to keep these species alive (90% of the lemurs – which can only be found in Madagascar and some neighbouring islands –  are estimated to vanish forever if urgent action is not taken, aka start planting those bloody trees). Madagascar simply cannot afford to lose this tourism opportunity. Its people depend on it. Hopefully, again, this will also become a governance priority with traceable results. Right now, the country seems to be more kept afloat by the support of dedicated NGOs which, as I imagine, have not only the hard task of righting the wrong, but also fighting the authorities on the way.

Best birthday gift

I have seen some of the most beautiful faces in Madagascar (the Malagasy are an interesting mix of Asian and African genes), trekked canyons and changing landscapes, bathed in crystal blue waterfalls, watched spectacular sunsets, tasted zebu in all its cooked forms, held hands with the locals while dancing by the camp fire, woken up to tens of sparkling rice terraces, went through dust and burning sun and took comfort on the beach, spent my birthday with a lemur on my head (if that is not magic!), enjoyed the local rum, collected hundreds of smiles and memories. Madagascar is no doubt an experience like no other. It is a place of colour and warmth, and above all, an eye-opening destination. I have never been thanked so much for choosing this country over a starred beach resort.

But it is I, the Vazah (white tourist) who am grateful to have witnessed and have been a part of a small fraction of Malagasy life. It is not every day that I get the privilege to wake up in a remote place of the Earth where everything is so different that you’d better forget where you come from and just observe this new universe that develops its wonders in front of you.

Madagascar, you have swept me away with your variety. A much rewarding surprise and nothing short of a treat for the eyes and soul. Merci. Milles fois merci.

In and out of Lima

IMG_7752Lima. 5 a.m. But first I need to pick up my luggage, which causes me a bit of a stress. Before I get off the plane, a Peruvian lady gives extensive explanations to her relatives travelling from Europe that it is rather common for the luggage to be stolen at the airport. She focuses on this topic for a while until I remain convinced, same as she seems to be, that I must kiss my luggage good bye. She’s a local, so I am inclined to believe that her knowledge of the place and customs is genuine. Besides, she is not the only one who expresses concern about the luggage situation, several people join the conversation. I struggle to dismiss the sound of Murphy’s law whispering in my ear “If anything can go wrong, it will” and wait patiently for my luggage to slide down to me on the conveyor belt. I enter the first phase that leads to sheer panic: be trustful and hopeful. Be desperate is patiently waiting in line.

Long, very long minutes pass by during which many people take the conveyor belt  by assault. It’s a human fortress that prevents me from even having a sneak preview of what comes on that belt. Approaching that area does not seem realistic unless I start distributing punches which I am too jet lagged to do. I have never seen so many people in an airport reluctant to keep a reasonable distance from that belt and allow other travellers to keep an eye on their belongings as well. Peruvians seemed to  have a strong attachment  to the airport conveyor belt and everything on it. It’s a space they are not willing to share, as if they’re all suffering from some long-instilled national trauma: the airport luggage theft.

Even if I had managed to catch sight of my luggage (which was still not the case), I would not have been able to collect it without a fist fight. First early morning cultural shock happens. After a while, there’s only me and very few people left to stare at the conveyor belt.  It is therefore logically the appropriate moment to start to panic: the Peruvian lady must have been right. This time I was sensible enough to carry half of the important belongings in my day pack which I hug dearly. At long last, critically drained of patience and energy, I spot my luggage and collect it happily. It weighs about 23 kilos, which adds to the 10 kilos that make my hand luggage. I load the whole on my 52 kilo frame and start doing the funny walk towards the exit.

There’s a taxi driver waiting for me. I “booked” him and his driving skills, so I feel  slightly VIP-ish. I’m sure he must have had a name, too, but I forgot it completely. I’m deep in evolving jet lag symptoms and I know I will not be concentrating much. The guy looks reliable for a 5 a.m. airport encounter, but hey, doesn’t everyone? I launch a superfluous conversation in Spanish to test his degree of friendliness. He drives me past a deserted and gloomy beach, going through some unwelcoming landscape of a country which doesn’t seem to know what to build where. We reach Miraflores, one the best neighbourhoods by Lima standards, specifically dressed up for tourists – a hub for anyone who can afford it, which technically means no locals. I’m decidedly not impressed by the accumulation of constructions and pray that a strong coffee will fix that. But I arrived in the garúa period, a greyish unfriendly mist which hovers over Lima during winter time, making it look sad and…painfully grey. I am intimately convinced that the city is much prettier under a different light.

The driver is being very kind: he drops me off right in front of my bed & breakfast even though the Police wanted to block his way and declare the road inaccessible. The place I’ll be sleeping in is equipped with a sort of bunker-like security system. Also, hello shabbiness! Yet, the driver insists that this is one of the most luxurious neighbourhoods in Lima. I raise an eyebrow and try not to look overly concerned. It’s 7 o’clock in the morning local time, so I only have the strength to accept things as they come. I go and have breakfast with the intention to rest a bit and explore the city afterwards. But someone is in the mood for engaging me in a conversation: a tour guide; he’s leaving with his group in one hour and thinks I’m one of his. He explains to me loads about the beauties I am about to see and gives me a warm hug: he’s a Quechua – no, not the brand name for the sport clothes, he’s the actual thing, the descendant of the Inca people who occupied that land in the first place. At that early hour and in my semi-conscious condition, I can’t oppose much to this bit of Quechua affection. We would meet about 10 days later and he’d still know my name. Fantastic person.

My room is much less welcoming however: the air is cold and damp and the windows are made in such an original way that they won’t close properly. You can easily push them to open by pressing the upper or lower part, but you will never be able to make them close fully. So I put on some of my warmest clothes (I could have put all of them on, really) and plunge under the blanket, hoping to warm up and have a good sleep that would make me forget I was there.

Lima is not the best place to be jet lagged in. If you are, the chances that you actually see any beauty in it are rather limited. I can reach high peaks of grumpiness when I lack sleep. Or when I wake up after only one hour of sleep and realize it’s still cold and grey. But I pile up my bits of broken motivation and decide to get out of the B&B and go to the city centre: I’m a traveller, my role is to visit. My initial thoughts were to walk there until the receptionist stopped me from doing so.

“No. Taxi,” she said, in a tone that left little room for contradiction.

Taxi it is. She calls one for me that picks me up right in front of the gate and tells me to only take a yellow one to come back. I’m afraid I did not have enough time to accommodate to the reality of the place: these people know what they are doing, hopefully. I’m all about freedom and when I’m given indicators that I can’t openly practice it, I need to take a moment to digest the news. The taxi driver seems to be confused as to why I find myself alone in his car. He repeats “Alone in the city center?” as if he is deaf and not sure he heard the instructions correctly. “Take the boy with you!” and he points to the young man guarding the door to the B&B. “Hum…I think he’s on duty. And I do travel by myself, so this is how it is.” We drive. Before reaching the end of the destination he also points to my camera: “No pictures! Steal camera in city center.” And when he sees other white European tourists walking around the main square, he yells: “Look, go with them! Go!” I’m puzzled as to how to react to this behaviour. Where am I and what have I done?

The first thing I notice while holding on to the bag in which I “hide” my big camera is that everyone else but the few tourists and me looks different: Peruvians are shorter (than me), dark-haired, look strangely similar to one another as if a big family went out for a walk and are modestly dressed. And this is enough conclusions to make me suspect each and every one of them of wanting to rob me of my camera. Talk about standing out of the crowd: I’m the female version of Gulliver and I’ve been stranded in Lilliput!

IMG_7706If I were to be honest with myself, I don’t think that Lima is a nice place to wake up to at all. But then again, it’s easy to get the wrong impression on a place when you’ve only been there for few hours. Maybe Lima did not reveal itself to me at its right value. I won’t be giving the city much credit that day. I am happy to get out of the crowd and look for the taxi place. Yellow they said. My head is too much the mess for me to concentrate on the plate number, so I truly hope the driver I pick is exactly what he pretends to be. I’m lucky, he decides not to kidnap me that day. I run back into my gloomy room (in August, Lima looks worse than Brussels at its greyest) to try and kill my jet lag, which, I end up admitting, is the root cause of the distorted image I have of this very new environment.

Still, I cannot be blamed for my confusion. Imagine this: there are roughly 9 million inhabitants in Lima and there is no metro, subway or train. There’s an estimated number of 300.000 taxis. Which do not really use what is called a taximeter – the price is usually negotiated before you jump in. The yellow one seems to be the most reliable (says a report based on the number of people who actually made it back safe and sound, maybe?). The yellow taxis are the metropolitan ones and are (supposed to be ) licensed. San Isidro, the “chic” district that to me looked like just another pile of buildings, proudly exhibits a 120-metre-high one which Peruvians refer to as a “skyscraper”. Because of the tectonic friction caused by the Nazca Plate working its way underneath the South American Plate, the reasons we have the Andes, Peru is rather exposed to potential devastating seismic activity.  This is not a place to compete for the tallest architectural achievement.

The real problem with Lima is that there aren’t an awful lot of things to do. Because the weather improved, I decided to give the Larco Museum a miss, in spite of it being one of the main attractions on account of a collection of Kama Sutra visuals on ceramic pots. What I did is eat (food is exquisitely tasty in Lima – and nothing beats a ceviche) and hang out in El Parque del Amor, for its merit of being close to the (Pacific) Ocean. And this is where I found the one thing that seduced me in Lima: paragliding.

IMG_7721IMG_7735I watched people flying around for few hours until I decided to queue up and try it for myself. But it was not in the cards for me that day (or the very last day when I returned to Lima either) because the wind changed so I was stuck on solid ground. High and dry.

Lima was easy to leave behind. But Peru was only just starting to unveil its true precious self.

Two planes till Peru

Lima, PeruKeys, money, passport, credit cards, flight ticket…I use all my powers of concentration to do the final check ritual and make sure I have all the vital belongings with me, preferably before I lock the door behind. Previous experiences have shown that, thorough though I may be in some circumstances, when it so happens that I lose my head, I usually go for a remarkable mistake, not just a small, insignificant one.

Before I left to South Africa, for instance, after some hectic days spent in-between work, work-related travels, packing and everything else, I did manage to lock myself out of the apartment with the keys on the inside. Luckily, every time I screw up massively, my guardian angel steps in to save the day. My landlord, who is strategically located three blocks away from me, had a third key (you would have guessed, I had duplicates, but they were on the other side of the door as well). He only answered my calls two hours later, so I had plenty of time to simmer gently in my own guilty consciousness and the extent of my stupidity. Can’t say I’ve learnt my lesson.

Before I board the plane from Brussels to Lima with a first stop in Madrid, I grab the fresh-of-the-day edition of El Pais. My Spanish is not great, but like every decent Romanian who grew up watching telenovelas, I have a passive knowledge of the language, good enough for me to grasp the overall message.

One article in particular gets my attention: it says something about a meeting involving several Latin American countries and taking steps towards an agreement to loosen abortion laws, etc. Here I am, up in the air, finding out that five of the seven remaining countries in the world which ban abortion in all circumstances are in Latin America: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Honduras, Dominican Republic (the other two being Vatican City – no surprise here- and Malta). Here, banned means that the mother is forced by law to deliver her baby even if: 1. The pregnancy is the result of a rape. 2. The pregnancy threatens her own life and 3. It is medically proven that the foetus cannot survive after birth. I’ll be damn!

“You can judge a country by how they treat their women”? If so, then many should hurry into respecting theirs and considering them more than just walking incubators programmed to deliver babies at the expense of their own lives.

To put things into context, I grew up in a country where communism has taken the best part of being a woman: in my mother’s time and way before, there was no access to contraception. Could anyone in developed countries imagine sexual life without pills and condoms nowadays? On top of that, abortion was illegal and consequently practiced illegally on a large scale in dodgy conditions, jeopardising thousands of women’s lives. How many children could a woman breed after all, and what to put on the table? Sex must have been a real nightmare for them. So yes, reading stuff like this does get me out of my system.

I am steaming on the inside, going through paragraphs that take me into how little rights Latin America’s women have over their bodies, lives, health, fate. I turn towards the lady next to me: she’s dozing off peacefully. How can she sleep so carelessly, did she even read this, does she understand that the low consideration of these women makes human rights look like a shameful joke? Is no one up in arms about this? Peace and quiet on the plane. People travel in a relaxed holiday mood.

I, on the contrary, set myself in war mode. I mentally prepare some nice letters intended to the brilliant law- and decision-makers and wish I were granted permission to rewrite some of the Pope’s public speeches. In the Middle Ages, I would have probably been burnt at the stake. But there I was, in this 21st century crippled by underdeveloped mentalities, landing in Madrid.

At the Madrid airport I have 2 hours to kill. To make time pass quicker, I inadvertently exit a door that takes me out of the airport. I didn’t realize this until I wanted to come back and saw that the only possibility to do so was to go through customs again. I only thought I was doing a tour of the airport but was absent minded and followed the wrong crowd. I must pass through the security check again, only this time I also have to take off my shoes as a bonus.

Luckily, I still have time before catching my connecting flight, so I spend it wondering aimlessly in the duty free shops. I never buy anything, but then I was bored and needed something to entertain myself with. Have you ever noticed just how dull everyone looks in an airport? But my steps and perhaps some subconscious desire lead me to where those small, cute bottles of alcohol are exhibited. It’s my lucky day: there a special promotion, 3 little bottles for the price of two.

I’m usually very bad at striking deals in all aspects of life, but I estimated that I could not go terribly wrong on this one. So there and then I decided to do what any reasonable human being who has an 11-hour night flight ahead should do: get drunk. I therefore acquire the small exhibits, buy a bottle of coke and empty some of the Johnny Walker magic into it.

This marked the first time I have ever stepped into a plane after having a drink. It was a very bumpy ride, I could feel the whole frame shacking from all over, but it didn’t manage to wake me up. From Madrid to Lima, I was sound asleep, the world’s problems hanging somewhere beyond me. Holidays, at last!

Peru: Preps ‘n’ Early Beginnings

Lake DistrictThe idea of going to Peru has stressed the life out of me. For two full months I roamed in circles like a lion in a cage before I finally did the irreversible and booked. Root of the problem: I wasn’t perfectly sure whether I was fit enough to tackle the Inca Trail. In my head, I was picturing this to be a sort of survival hike and was really conflicted as to why on Earth I would put myself to such a test. There was also the altitude, the cold on the mountain plus my apparent frail physical structure that made me deeply weigh the level of trouble I was getting myself into. It was the Amazon that I had always wanted to see, and the Inca was included in the package. All these fear factors accumulated, truth be told, I do not mind a good challenge. Still, once in a lifetime experience though it promised to be, I was still counting on coming back.

I submissively received a shot against yellow fever (supposedly compulsory if you enter the Amazon, but no one asked for proof of evidence there) and thus added one more to the collection of vaccines I had already acquired prior to my departure to South Africa. The travel doc waves about five prescriptions at me on which he scribbled medicines intended to help me go through a variety of ills. I was to become broke after buying them. Luckily, I brought all of them back untouched and while tablets against altitude sickness and diarrhoea (thank God for the spelling corrector for this one!) have been reported to come in handy, you do not need water purifying tablets and these are actually the most expensive in the lot.

At that stage I was not concerned about the gear. But I decided I had to deal with the training part. Reaching a new level of my spontaneity, I booked a flight to Manchester from one week to the other to follow a two-day wild camping crash course in the Lake District. I had no idea what I was doing. Saying that I was absolutely not prepared for spending happy times in the mountains would be drastically reducing the reality of the situation. I had imagined this to be more of a leisure hike in an area that for me did not have anything to do with mountains: since when do 978 m tops are spoken of as “mountain”? Belgian and British people have a funny sense of what mountains look like, I thought. They’re trying to boycott geography. Dutch people might actually get altitude sickness there. But while I was poking fun in my head at the others, the Gods of righteousness were getting ready to punish me double-fold for real.

I must have looked like the biggest idiot ever to the two mountain guides when they asked me if I had everything I needed for the trek and opened my luggage in front of them. They looked at one another and silently started to bring me long ski trousers, gloves, winter cap, plenty of long-sleeve items, some of which were really thick and warm. They also got rid of my sleeping bag and replaced it with a polar one, capable of keeping someone alive at -30° C. Did I book for the right trip or were we all being sent to the North Pole? Where were they taking me? It was nicely sunny and I was perfectly content in my T-Shirt on that lovely May day 2013.

See, that changed around 7 p.m., after we set up our tents and decided to go for the peak. Nature has a very funny way to make one feel insignificant when it sets its mind on it. With suddenness that no one would have predicted, heavy clouds, mist and a terrible cold encircled us. We met people who were still looking for the peak after having literally passed inches away from it. They hadn’t been able to see it, so dense was the fog.

We, on the contrary, make it to the top, but we lose our way back. At midnight, unsteady on our feet and barely seeing each other, we were still looking for our lost tents in a paralysing cold and with no one else around. Jamie, our guide, and my personal protector and saviour (God bless him), was running in all directions searching for the lost tents, checking my pulse once in a while to see if I was still part of this world. It would all have been a funny spectacle, had I not reached a stage in which my senses had become stubbornly numb. It was eerie dark, my legs were not listening to my brain instructions anymore and it’s a miracle I did not sprinkle any ankle on those slippery rocks. I had passed the “frozen” level and under a wind-proof bivy tent that Jamie fetched for us as a protection means while he was away scouting for our shelter, my will to move had given up on me. But Jamie is a wizard and brought us back safe and sound.

You would have understood: having the right gear is crucial. The two-day hike in the Lake District marked my understanding of this forever. With my T-Shirt and light rain jacket, fully unprepared for the mighty cold that almost got me into hypothermia in spite of wearing 5 layers of very warm pullovers and jackets (and ski gloves) that Jamie had carefully provided me with, I would have learned my lesson.

Having survived Lake District and Scafell Pike, one doubtful question was still hovering over my head: how will my body react at 4200m altitude? This no one can tell, really – you might be a highly-trained sportsperson and still be rushed down the mountain in an emergency if your very personal genes do not adapt quickly to that.

If you intend to do the journey to Peru, here are some things that I would have liked someone to tell me. And let me reassure you: you’ll be just fine!

  • The Inca trail is not a very difficult one (I had a 71 year-old lady in the group and she did perfectly well – don’t know what happened once she went back to her country, though). It is not a walk in a park either, but it does not require a professional fitness level. Anyone can do it. The most important thing is to establish your own rhythm and not run after the people in front of you. Take it nice and slow, and you might just enjoy the surroundings even more. After all, this may be your only chance in life to see this place. There is no point in walking quickly also because if you make it to the camp at 3 pm, there will be nothing there for you to do: you’ll just have plenty of time to try to deal with the cold.
  • Peru is not a country where you would want to just go and be spontaneous, but one you need to prepare for. If you want to do the Inca, you need to book permits way in advance (read some 5 months in advance) – there are only 250 permits a day and in high season the trek is sold out rapidly. The dry season (May to September) is the best to do the Inca trail (less chances of rain).
  • The difficulty with Peru is how to dress up: for the record, the country has no less than 28 climates (there are 32 in the world), meaning that no matter the season, you will alternate between cold and hot. So instead of taking thick pullovers, what you want is layers: sweat-proof T-Shirts, thermal underwear, long sleeve shirts, polar fleece, wind/water proof jacket, etc. (some useful reading from G Adventures:
  • During the hike, do wear the trekking shoes you are the most comfortable with. After having carried across Peru two pairs of trekking shoes, I finally opted for the one without ankle support. Personally, I’d much rather be able to move my feet and not walk like Robocop, but this is totally a matter of preference.
  • If you don’t book with a tour operator, make sure you acclimatize correctly. The best approach is to go up gradually, spend some nights in the altitude, then go lower and then high up again. Hopefully, your body adjusts.
  • The currency is the Peruvian Nuevo Sol (the sun, of course, that the Incas worshiped so much) but locals gladly accept the US dollar, too. The only trick is that you will be given the change in soles, so having a minimum knowledge of the currency exchange is useful, although Peruvians proved to be quite honest people.

Time was ticking away and I was finally almost ready for my adventure, because despite all my minute preparations (I even iron my trekking clothes) this is as close as I would ever get to feeling prepared for the take-off. Ready or not, it was time for me to hit the road. Peru

SA13: Oh, Cape Town! My Cape Town!

South Africa_Cape Town view

I saw “Searching for Sugar Man” some six months after I came back from South Africa. I did not realize how much the place had stayed with me until the opening scene of the documentary plunged me back on the same road that I was now taking to Cape Town with the Drifters. I remembered the excitement which took over all of us at seeing Cape Town from afar.

Considered to be one of the 10 must-see cities in the world according to Lonely Planet 2014, Cape Town has such a variety of visiting sites and activities to offer that spending only three days there felt like what Al Pacino was referring to as “the goof of all time” in “The Devil’s Advocate”: “Look but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, but don’t swallow.” We knew for sure that the following days would leave us drooling over everything we would not have had the chance to experience.

No hurry to get to the city center though. The road from which Cape Town looked like a white line drawn between the ocean and the sky was an ecstatic experience in itself: on the left side of the truck, the rays of sun were sparkling in the blue and green water of the Atlantic; on the right side, huge rocks were reaching towards the light-blue sky. We might as well have been transported on a magic, though bumpy carpet. It felt strangely close to flying.

South Africa_Road to Cape Town

Lovers, passers-by have drawn hearts or written their names with black marker on the stones that border the side of the road. It is an unexpected sight. Maybe they, too, caught in the beauty of the place, set their minds on returning someday to look for lost traces.

Cape Town, contrastively, has the vibe of a city that moves into the future, as we were to see later on. When we arrive at Sea Point, we only have time for a very quick shower, an absolute must for everyone’s sake. The road had been long and we had all been generously stewing in the overheated army truck. It’s summer in December in South Africa. We rush out and take calculated turns to shower so as to be ready at the appointed time. One of the best things about organized group tours is that the schedule must be relatively respected by everyone. We rarely end up waiting for someone and never for too long.
Cape Town South Africa
The drawback, however, is that you are equally dependent on the group to some extent, which largely diminishes freedom of movement, but does not incapacitate it. Just in case the thought might have slipped anyone’s mind, we are set into the touristic context and are brought to the notorious (I believe, since South Africans tend to do the “Aaaa” sound when I mention it) restaurant “Mama Africa”. We take several taxis to get there. I quickly befriend the black taxi driver: he speaks French and has already been to Belgium. He leaves me his card in case I might need a ride later. He does not like Cape Town and had been trying to get out of there for seven years. I am on holiday, so for me all is pinkish, even in the darkness of the streets on which he’s driving us. Being a tourist is a privileged position.

My first memory of “Mama Africa” is the live music and the truly exceptional singer animating the evening. The drums were loud and the singer’s voice was powerful enough to crack the walls. Maybe it had. He was not using a microphone (or else we might have gone deaf) and was waving his arms around freely, making up his own show. I bet he could have been hired by any European opera; I have never heard anything like it before. His notes were absolutely hair-raising – my indicator that something is close to perfection. The food was good but the show was even better. All the more so since Takalani, manifestly sensitive to the African beat, started to dance, joining the group of entertainers. It was a great night.

I did not realize that half of the group was already gone, so much was I enjoying myself, when I saw Janos’s panic so clearly disturbing his face expression and heard him say: “Where’s everyone? Where did Takalani go? How do we go back?” He was losing it. Takalani was in fact gradually sending back part of the herd by taxis, and he did so discretely with those who had finished and paid for their meals. I was lost to the African music and did not realize he was calling it a night. Until Janos’s face called for immediate attention: there was “emergency” written all over it, red light and everything. While I was happily relaxed and would have gladly been ready to discover a local night club or any other less touristy location, Janos was scared to be left behind in the big wild city of Cape Town at night.

I start to laugh, enjoying this unexpected reaction which catapults me to the opposite pole, making me look naively trustful all of a sudden. “Hey, it’s all good, even if they go away, we can stay longer. I have the number of a taxi driver, he seemed all right and he’ll drive us to the B&B.” The moment creates an opening for me to make fun of Janos for the rest of our days in South Africa and my guess is that he was grateful that the trip was coming to an end.

When we entered the Drifters B&B’s courtyard at Sea Point it was 10 p.m. The Germans were out having beer around the table, while the others disappeared in their rooms. I was among the last ones to be transferred from the restaurant. In that pleasurable warm breeze, livened up by the holiday mood and the excitement of a place I had not yet had the chance to explore, neither the courtyard, nor the room loomed appealing to me. Our B&B was just one minute away from the main ocean promenade. I ask if anyone wanted to have a walk but all I get back is dumbfounded looks as if my question had some sort of perverted indecency about it.

“Now? But it’s dangerous! “

That was enough for me to grab my camera, wish my companions a very nice evening and go towards the secured gate beyond which my freedom was waiting. Groans and words of discouragement, like I was about to jump off a cliff. Before I leave the scene, Dieter, 50 something and some experience of how to enjoy life, volunteers to accompany me. Janos is suddenly encouraged by our joint suicidal impulse and decides to come with us after all. I feared that the stress would cause him to talk even more and probably faster, if such a thing was even possible.

Few things are as magic as being by the side of the Ocean on a warm summer night. We had ice-creams and walked the streets until we found a local bar and had beers. People were very friendly and smiled to us – Janos let his guard down.

“I actually think that Cape Town is a rather safe place. I feel safe here. I’ve been in other European cities and it didn’t feel as safe as here, “ he says. Dieter and I exchange looks. Subsequent burst of laughter, of course.

We were the only ones in our group to have experienced a tiny little bit of Sea Point, Cape Town by night. After having been in the wilderness, it is the human jungle that was putting my travel mates’ touristic zeal to a test. Ever since, people’s choices of destinations and the complexity of travelling as a social behaviour have been fascinating me. Like Rodriguez, I wonder. It took some of us as much as 19 hours flight to go back to places we call home. Table Mountain’s next.