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» Messing with people's heads

The Odd Sock
But probably subtler was the one I’ve been playing on my mate Dave.

Dave has the most immaculate flat in the world. Howard Hughes would happily eat off the floor there if he was still alive. Shoes are strictly banned, and everything has to be in its exact place. I think you get the idea.

One day he announce that the had thrown out all his socks and bought twenty pairs of new identical black socks. “Now show me the odd sock when I do my laundry” he said.

Challenge accepted. For the past eight years, probably every three or four months, I take one of my own odd socks out with me when I’m going around to his flat. And if the timing is right I sneak it into the depth of his laundry basket.

The thing is that he has never once mentioned the odd sock problem. And. It's. Very. Slowly. Driving. Me. Mad.
(Sat 14th Jan 2012, 20:16, More)

» Travel

Kidnapped in Kinshasa
Kind of playing into my hands as my cunning plan is to spend years posting my travel stories on b3ta before eventually compiling them into a huge and boring book that I can give to people as presents. However back to the topic, and the point I probably came closest to being murdered.

I was heading down Boulevard du 30 Juin on foot because the taxis in central Kinshasa have a pretty poor reputation when a car pulled up next to me and the passenger flashed a police ID and asked to see my ID. He took my passport and said he would have to check on my place of residence - this looked like an easy ride back to the garage I was headed to anyway, so I wasn't too concerned - until at the next corner two other guys got in and sandwiched me in the back seat, and they took off down the Boulevard in the wrong direction.

Alarm bells started ringing. As long as we stayed on the Boulevard I knew I was safe, as police are at every junction, and traffic moves very slowly, but I knew that if we left the Boulevard I could be in trouble. Kidnappings were pretty common, and the best scenario was that I would be stripped and beaten – the worst and more common one was where I would be killed to avoid witnesses. The night before my host had told me about crashing through a dodgy roadblock at night and having the militia empty a full Kalashnikov magazine at their Land Rover as they sped off – which was preferable to stopping and being murdered. In my most authoritative voice (don't laugh, it works more often than you'd think) I demanded they stop immediately as they clearly weren't taking me to check on my residence, and a second goon - the one to my right - assured me that everything was OK as they were police. And of course he had to show me his ID, which was clearly mickey-mouse.

For all the emotions I might have felt anger was foremost – at myself for putting myself in this position when I really should have known better. Apart from that I was surprisingly calm – fear simply wasn’t a factor; I focused on the fact that it was time to get out and I needed a plan.

As surreptitiously as possible I put my hand in my pocket and palmed my ancient XDA stylus - not much to look at but it's 4 inches of steel, sharp, and handy when you need something to stick in somebody’s neck. That was for the guy on my right – the guy on the left was about to have his ear bitten off – ears are great – they piss blood everywhere and in the mayhem my plan was to kick the fuck out of anything that moved while climbing over the bloke with the sore neck, and out the door . All very Andy McNab, but no way were we leaving the Boulevard with me still in that car. I’d faced a few dodgy situations up to this point and had had a Kalashnikov pointed at my chest less than week earlier, but I still remember registering surprise at the complete lack of fear and the cold resolve in a situation that I would have thought would leave me shitting myself.

We were approaching a junction and the car was moving across so I figured that they would exit there, so I had to act in the next few seconds. The traffic came to a pause a few yards from the junction which I saw was manned by a gaggle of the yellow and blue attired, and hopelessly unarmed traffic cops; the car was turning left so it was time for action, and a part of me was aghast at what I was about to do next. Yes, I really did it – I leant across the bloke on my left and screamed like a woman and pounded on the window. The cops looked over in shock at this strange white man who had clearly lost all dignity, and then started running towards the car. My driver pulled onto the kerb but clearly wasn’t going to get far, and one of the others muttered something about maybe letting me go, which I took as an opportunity to scramble out, pausing only to pluck my passport from the hands of guy in the front passenger seat. The traffic police caught up with me as the car moved back into the traffic flow, but they weren’t keen on chasing the car as they weren’t armed, whereas the baddies may well have been, and I wasn’t particularly fussed either way now that I was out. After tipping the police generously (maybe as much as $15 as I recall) I decided I chance it with a local taxi after all - I mean how much worse could they be?


Length? 18 months and 70,000km
(Mon 22nd Apr 2013, 11:28, More)

» Messing with people's heads

Michael Palin Would Have Been Proud
Another Africa tale I think…

It was in village market somewhere near Ketama in the hashish region of Morocco that I came across the alarm clock. It was exactly the same as the one that Michael Palin has used in Sahara. It was shaped in the form of a mosque with two minarets and a golden dome, and when it went off it played either the morning or afternoon call to prayer. This was a must have souvenir.

I really needn’t have bothered though. We were travelling during Ramadan when the morning call was at 4:30 am, and wherever our small covoy went we always seemed to end up sleeping next door to a mosque – I swear there must be some sort of zoning regulation in Morocco that ensures this. Personally I quite liked being woken up and I still find the morning call to prayer to be an immensely evocative sound. Brad Pitt on the other hand was being driven to distraction by it all. Every morning he’d be cursing in his roof tent and the bitching would continue until at least midday.

Rewind a bit. Brad, who was really a South African called Piet, was driving home in a shiny new land rover. He was actually quite a nice guy, but unfortunately the ladies in our travelling party spent most of the day swooning over him – and when he stripped off his shirt to work on his car it was like being at a Justin Bieber concert. So basically he had it coming.

Eventually we’d sorted out our visas at Rabat and were able to head out into the desert. We drove south east along a series of increasingly smaller roads, then tracks, and finally drifting sand until we found a perfectly isolated gap in the dunes and made camp. As space wasn’t an issue we would generally leave quite a space between vehicles for privacy, which fitted my plan perfectly. Finally at about 9pm Brad stretched and declared that it was his time to retire. As he walked back to his vehicle he said “At least we won’t get woken up by any fucking calls to prayer”. Half an hour later I crept under his landy and placed my alarm clock between the axles, volume turned up to maximum, alarm set for 4:30 am.

Over breakfast Brad was ranting like a man possessed. As far as I know he still hasn’t figured it out and I was even able to retrieve my clock just in case I felt a need to use it again.

Length? 18 months and 70,000km
(Sat 14th Jan 2012, 20:07, More)

» I should have been arrested

Did ever mention that I drove a land Rover all the way around Africa? Well technically that’s a lie – rather than get fleeced by the Egyptian vehicle import charges I figured out a route from Suakin on the Sudanese coast that would take me across to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Once the transit visa was sorted out it was just a matter of the solo drive from Khartoum along Kitchener’s railway line (literally for some stretches) to the coast. It was an amazing crossing – I managed to get to the coast in a hard day’s driving from Atbara, and then spent a few hours faffing over the tickets for the ferry.

By this time I’d been in Africa for a year and a half and was used to African ways. I was expecting some rusting hulk, so the ferry came as a bit of a surprise; a modern looking behemoth that still had posters up from its recent service in the Scottish isles. I drove into a cavernous hold that was pretty much empty, and then went topside to watch the coral-built ruins of Old Suakin slip into the sunset.

On arrival I suddenly found myself in the first world again. In case you haven’t figured it out they call the third world the third world because of the gaping chasm between it and the first world, so there I am waiting for uniformed officials to arrange the offloading of my Landy in a smart ferry terminal, when I start thinking about my bottle of whisky.

This bottle had travelled up with me from Kenya, a good single malt about two thirds gone, and I hadn’t really thought about it for a while because, for a ‘dry’ country, Sudan proved to include quite a few good watering holes along the way (the best was the splendidly hospitable British High Commission) so I hadn’t needed to fall back on reserves. Once in the desert I realised that I’d mislaid the bottle – it had probably slipped behind the dead fridge, but looking for it was going to raise huge clouds of dust, so I let it be.

Fast forward an hour and now I’m in a Saudi customs shed where they are going over my paperwork prior to checking out the vehicle. I still wasn’t too fussed – if they found it I decided I’d offer to pour it down the drain or gift it, claiming (as was the case) that I’d lost it ages ago, and showing the dust that covered everything in the car as evidence. A genuine mistake which I was sure the friendly officials in pristine starched white dishdashes would accept. In the event I needn’t have worried – the search was perfunctory, and the bottle remained lost until I decided to share it with a friendly Syrian border guard a few weeks later.

I recently told this story to a friend who had worked with the Saudi military, and he shook his head. “Fifty lashes and a year in prison minimum, idiot”. Fuck knows what I’d have got for the cruise missile engine I was smuggling home in my top box.

Length? 18 months and 70,000km
(Fri 27th Jan 2012, 21:01, More)

» Nightclubs

The Strangest Nighclub Ever

It was looking to be possibly the worst birthday of my life.

A few weeks previously, a random conversation with a Frenchman in Cameroon had led to a long excursion across areas that the map showed as completely blank, leading to a ferry crossing that shouldn't have existed, which took us to the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere, and with no way back as we had had a little bit of unpleasantness with the local chief of Secret Police…

We were stuck in the North East corner of Congo Brazzaville on one of the tributaries of the Congo. To the West there was an actual Ebola outbreak, so no chance of following a 'maybe' track there. The tarmac road heading south was a complete fucking figment of the imagination on the part of the Michelin cartographers, and the river was too low for boats as the rains were late. After a couple of weeks of waiting my two mates went ahead on a small pirogue leaving me to wait for the waters to rise further so that I could load my Land Rover on to a larger boat. So it was that a week or so later I found myself more or less on the equator on a barge packed with 200 Africans with not a friend for hundreds of miles.

It's a funny part of the world; there is no law and order to speak of, and local warlords terrorise the local population. The skippers (for there were four) did their best to avoid any signs of civilisation, usually mooring in the middle of the stream overnight. On the morning of my birthday I had wandered over to a market stall (the boat was a sort of floating market) to buy what I knew to be the last plastic sachet very bad ‘whisky’ only to find that somebody had beaten me to it. Things were looking pretty miserable. Then at dusk something strange happened. We moved away from the main navigation and nosed our way in between a group of small islands. Hidden there, well away from any chance of interference, was a small mud hut village where we disembarked. Until that point I hadn't realised that there was such a thing as a paraffin fridge, but here were loads of them and they were filled with beer. There was something hugely surreal about sitting down with an icy cold bottle of beer, and one that cost about 60p a pint to boot, when you're halfway down the Congo. It's also surprising how many good friends you can make when you’re crowded together in a small space, sharing the same food, all a long way from home. The lightshow wasn’t up to much but this club had the best music, and as clubs go – it’s one I’ll remember even if I don’t know its name... Hell - I'm not even sure what country it was in.
(Mon 13th Apr 2009, 16:00, More)
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