A Kiwi's trip of a lifetime: To The Gambia in West Africa; and Dubai, Jordan, Israel and Palestine in the Middle East; via London
A northern hemisphere winter. Ten flights - at all times of day and night on four different carriers. One carry on backpack. Busy London. A dictator and civil unrest in West Africa. Dangerous Middle East. Within less than three weeks.
So I wasn't calling my trip a ‘holiday’, but it had the ingredients for an adventure. Time was tight due to leaving family behind, fitting it in work holidays, and due to cost. Writing this article feels strangely the same, having too few words to describe what was, in many ways, the trip of a lifetime.
I flew from Christchurch to Melbourne to Dubai to London in 33 hours. I had requested a window seat on the A380 long haul flights hoping to use the wall to sleep against. Instead I discovered the wall curved too far outward and the arm of the chair didn't fold back, so instead I watched more movies than I can remember and when in transit trialled Facebook messenger. Facebook messenger was the catalyst for me finally joining Facebook. I had three friends - yes, my mother and wife, and my West African hosts.
My first day in London was short as I wandered the centre of the city, reminiscing about visits in 2008 and 2011. I took a photo in the grim weather looking across Trafalgar Square - wet, cold, empty, devoid of colour - evidence for my wife that this trip wasn't a pleasure-seeking escape. It was suddenly dark at 3.45pm. Pub meals were an important deliverable for my trip, so I indulged at first opportunity, then finally went to my classically Kensington, and inexplicably cheap hotel for sleep.
I awoke just after 10pm. I was in the hotel hallway closing my hotel door behind me. What a time to sleep walk! Underwear? Fortunately. Some curious looks on the way down to reception? Certainly. A young woman at the counter? Of course. No doubt the CCTV footage was of amusement to the staff.
The next day I wandered London, through streets, buildings and parks ostentatious and of a scale that surely can only be built in times of colonial prosperity. Passed by Buckingham Palace, then met a new friend. Not entirely new, rather a colleague from work who was back home in the UK for the break. Along with his girlfriend and brother, we cruised Harrods, finding the spy gadgets area for amusement, then had lunch, visited the Science Museum (interesting), and indulged in afternoon tea before parting ways.
The following day I met old friends, Brits who had returned to the Motherland. Enjoyed a visit to Windsor Castle while catching up on favourite conversations. Then more pub meals, met another brother and another girlfriend, and then gratefully accepted a drop off to Gatwick.
At Gatwick I stayed in my first airport filing cabinet hotel, booked to avoid a train strike and to not travel at night - minimalist, lots of blue strip lighting that isn't trendy any more (was it ever trendy?) but it worked a treat.
Finally southwards to the primary goal - to the Gambia in West Africa.
I pause my story here for a moment, because I have skipped weeks of following the post-election drama - a former military dictator of twenty something years reign refusing to step down in favour of the English real estate agent who won the vote, borders opening and closing, internet service temporarily ceasing, the military rolling out machine gun emplacements at intersections, generals saying they will back one side or other, the incoming president going into hiding, neighbouring Senegal saying they would step in with their military and enforce the election result, locals heading out of town, and me heading in!
"This is Africa - what do you expect?" was the catch cry I heard regularly from my friends over the week of my stay. It actually felt a blessing to be there amidst the waiting game as a beaten down country dared to hope for a brighter future. Otherwise it was glorious golden sand beaches, cruising the tourist spots (and there is a large British community of retirees there thriving on low living costs and warm climate), and playing Mancala.
But it wasn't all fun and games. Most Gambians get by on less than USD two per day. There were all those signs of impoverishment - bad cars, worse teeth, stray dogs, desperate beggars, vultures, unsealed roads, run-down buildings built in more prosperous times (the sixties before the Brits left).
In the end I left my (fancy) camera behind when I went out because of the sullen looks I received. "Who am I - a novelty to you white man?" Or that is what I imagined. Particularly the women. It was a shame because they were so beautiful, in kaleidoscopic garb, and in such intriguing surroundings.
A lasting memory was of a little boy who reached up to the car window asking for money when I was waiting outside a store. I passed him what equated tomaybe three USD and he ran back to his mother who was slumped in the shadows of the store, and held the notes proudly taut in front of her but she barely registered she had seen him.
I learnt from Gambia why Africans would risk crossing the Mediterranean in a half inflated dinghy. And I was reminded how in New Zealand every day we should feel wealthy not just because of material items, but with our freedom, our rule of law, abundant resources, open space. And how we cannot be too generous to those less fortunate than ourselves in this small world. So it was with an opened mind I left Gambia (the day before someone closed the airport).
A few untimely flights took me to Dubai for what was a carefully planned reconnoitre of central Dubai (given I would be there for another day a week later), and a much needed sleep before a mid-morning departure to Jordan.
Except that after a soul sucking trip to Dubai Mall - even a mentally unhinged compulsive shopper would never get to the end of new goods/shops there - redeemed by a pretty cool trip up the Burj Khalifa, I clumsily left my phone/wallet in a taxi as I returned to my hotel at midnight. Realising this a split second too late, I then scrambled to call taxi companies, travel insurers, bank, my employer in NZ (who owned the phone), checking camera footage from the hotel, getting out cash before almost cancelling credit cards... before the taxi driver dropped it back at 3 am! I was so excited I had my phone/wallet back but it wasn't the relaxing catch up sleep I needed.
Flying to Jordan back the way I had come was an annoying function of being off the typical airline routes and not being able to fly direct out of Israel while landing for a required transit in a Gulf state country. But, no time for feel sorry for myself: I was going to ‘do’ Jordan and Israel/Palestine in six days. I was told on Tripadvisor my itinerary couldn't be done but raising a white flag was not an option - this could be my one chance to see these fascinating countries.
Day one: Landed in Queen Alia Airport. Hired a car. Drove south to Wadi (means valley) Mujib and took great pictures in the afternoon Sun. Chatted with a couple of lads Saddam and Mohammed (not the last time I met people with those names). The locals were very helpful and loved to tell me "Welcome to Jordan!" when I regularly asked directions in lieu of having a map or data through my phone as the rate was $30 per 5 MB.
Didn't quite get to Al Karak, a Crusader era castle, before running out of light, incidentally where a ten fatality terrorist attack had occurred a month before. But importantly, I had arrived at Wadi Musa at the entrance to famed Petra by the end of the evening.
Before dawn (as unlikely as that would sound to those who know me) I was up packing my bag and the car for an epic day ahead.
I arrived at Petra soon after 7am amongst the first handful of people to arrive. As I started the walk into the Siq the Indiana Jones theme started a brain worm that regularly came to the fore during the day. (Da da da da... da da daa... da da da daaaa... da da daa da da.) The Siq - a narrow passage through the cliffs, emerges at the Treasury, the most spectacular of the carved facades.
From there I continued down the valley floor before heading off the beaten track to walk a hills circuit around Petra. My visit truly blew my mind - it was a spiritual experience. To explain the place that is Petra, you have to understand that the Nabataean, and Roman and Crusader buildings sprawl over a wide area - this was a stop on the legendary silk road with a flow of travellers that justified a 8500 capacity theatre.
You also need to understand the fantastical beauty of the landscape with the surreal hill formations and layered stone. You also need to witness the Bedouin, who still live there, in their element. I enjoyed tea with Mofleh a hospitable Bedouin who lives on the fringe of Petra facing out to a view more beautiful than many will see in their lifetimes. Truly a unique and significant place. I left early in the afternoon, acknowledging I could have stayed longer, but at the same time enjoying knowing that the awe of Petra would stay with me.
But I wanted to see Wadi Rum, of Lawrence of Arabia fame and a backdrop to many films set in Mars. After some more driving I clattered into Wadi Rum inside a battered Hilux called "Camel" driven by a local young man-about-town. He was a son to a father with four wives and twenty something children so that was a good conversation starter. As the light fell too quickly over the surreal red rock hills myself I lounged and chatted with a couple of locals before I departed for the Israel/Palestine border. Too short at Wadi Rum but a great glimpse.
(My willingness for just-in-time border/bus/airport arrivals makes other people nervous. But I also have a theory that it takes people who arrive early take longer to get through such situations because there is congestion with all the other people who arrive early which just reinforces a false perception.)
I entered the border crossing as the last person of the day. I did get questioned by the Israeli border crossing chap on all sorts of details about home and my travels. When I politely commented that he had engaged me in more conversation than I ever had before at a border, he seemed surprised and said, ‘you got off lightly, you should've seen the last pair.’
Israel - unashamedly developed and progressive. The Holy Land. Not that the signs to "Lot's Wife" and "Mount Sodom" amidst barren hills as I travelled north the next day carried much appeal, but I did visit the Dead Sea and Herod's mountaintop fortress at Masada, and walked up rather than taking the cable car. Very strange sensation floating in the Dead Sea as it was much more buoyant than I could have imagined and the saltiness almost felt oily.
Next deadline - drop off the car before 6pm in Jerusalem. I reluctantly used data in Jerusalem, now $30 for 25 MB, to find a petrol station very close to the rental depot and with a luxurious 25 minutes to spare. Except that the pump was not in English and everything fell apart when I then attempted to pay with a different credit card on the same account. Credit cards locked out. Fuel in car. Tension.
Had to leave possessions with the petrol station to drop the car to the hire company who were annoyed I left it on the footpath even though there was nowhere else to put it and everyone else had parked on the footpath. No luck with the ATM. I had painful phone calls to an unhelpful person from the bank though my cards were finally unlocked.
This takes me to day four of six, out of my epic six Jordan/Israel/Palestine days. I took part in a ‘free’ walking tour of the Old City. Wandered up the Mount of Olives. Struggled to find places to eat on Shabbat - classic. My story could get bogged down here in what were fascinating experiences for me but I think they are of the type that you just really would have to be there.
Day five was a long day touring the Jordan river, around the Sea of Galilee and to Capernaum and Nazareth. I did dip my feet in the Jordan river though I had no interest in a second baptism. I did the same in the Sea of Galilee as well.
I will break the chronology of the story to mention that a highlight of the trip was the number of different bodies of water I experienced to different extents, swimming in the Atlantic for my first times, and also in the Red Sea, and Persian Gulf as well as the Dead Sea as previously noted.
I haven't talked much of the enlightening conversations I had through my time in Israel, on tours, after tours, at restaurants and in my hostel. It was certainly a great option to choose a lively hostel for me as a lone traveller who has historically travelled with others. It was a highlight talking politics and faith with the various staff and travellers around the hostel bar until late into the evenings.
Day six and my last in Israel. Time to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the proposed burial stone of Jesus lies within a tomb within a weird and wonderful church, was to be the pinnacle of my trip. I waited in a queue before being hurried through the small entry into the tomb by some Eastern European heavies - think of the bad guys out of "Taken".
The ladies in my group prostrated themselves upon the stone, before we were all instructed to depart something like 24 seconds later. Not the spiritual experience I had expected! I also touched the stone upon which Jesus body was supposedly prepared (at least I think that is what it was, no time for a tour guide), which I realised later was probably a faux pas as all the other people I had seen were wiping it with ceremonial cloths. Sorry - Holy Land novice error.
Because I wasn't allowed to visit Gaza I had been thinking of visiting Jericho in the West Bank on the way back to Jordan. Israelis don't go there (for fear of death according to the signs) and I don't speak Arabic so a few confusing buses and I was on my way. I munched on what would otherwise have been a few days worth of sweet yellow local bread, the result of a swift and inaccurate transaction with a street-side vendor.
The transition into the less developed West Bank was striking.
I had stilted chat with a boy on the bus called Achmed who seemed keen to try his English on me. Along with his mother who spoke no English, and in an astounding act of generosity, they invited me back to his uncles’ houses who they were visiting. They also spoke no English.
So with a few words and some charades I was hosted most enjoyably by two uncles and six children, plus about ten other kids from the neighbourhood, as my arrival had caused quite a stir. They offered me food and in spite of my saying I could eat but only if they were eating, I was cooked a feast sufficient for three people which I couldn't finish a fraction of. We discussed their trips to Mecca, also Hamas, Palestinian TV, one or two state solutions, their jobs and my family. We smoked their argileh pipe and I admired the smoke rings they blew and we exchanged gifts. It was a humbling experience I will remember for my lifetime.
I crossed the border just in time for my flight out of Jordan. Although I arrived early a person rejected my carry on bag for not having a ticket (admittedly struggling to get it back out of the ‘max size’ frame which I had crammed it into wasn't a good look). The person at the desk was surprised, no one had been asked for a tag before, but armed with my tag I returned to the queue to find a whole bunch of those pesky earlier arrivals were ahead of me. No problem, there were several people processing passports. Make that two, then one. I did the maths and it didn’t stack up, so I flashed the pearly whites and asked if I could move up the queue as the final call was being made. The twenty or so people in front were more than happy to oblige.
I enjoyed my last day in Dubai eating by the Dubai fountains and visiting the beach. However I confess that I found Dubai unsatisfying with a 'contracted out' feel about it where (literally) everybody I met called somewhere else home. The stories from the taxi drivers of only going home to family in Pakistan (or Egypt, Lebanon, Afghanistan etc.) for a month a year, all to create a better future for their families was heart breaking. And I also didn't like Dubai because my hotel had a fire drill in the morning after my middle of the night arrival.
Yes I was sleep deprived and looking forward to seeing family. But I crammed a whole lot in, a lot more than I have written about of course and I don't regret any of my travel. And most importantly, I had a blessed time with new friends, old friends, and circumstantial friends and have seen and talked about all sorts of things that I will ponder for a long time. A great adventure.
Oh, and Senegal did step in to sort out the Gambia situation. The dictator got asylum along with a few of his mates and took a good amount of money and cars with him. But although on the face of it there is a lack of justice, he is out of the way and the transition happened peacefully.
- by Mark Lewthwaite
Born and raised in Christchurch, Mark is a church, family and engineer kind of guy, who is intrigued by culture and a desire to get his head around how the world works.