Monday, March 4, 2013

My Travel Experiences

In 1967, when I was four years old, my parents whisked me away from Montreal to live in Nairobi. I immediately felt at home. As far as I knew, Africa was only down the road. Our new residence, a bungalow built of Njiru bluestone on the crest of a wooded bluff overlooking the Muthari River valley, was straight out of a story book.  

We toured the country exhaustively in our Peugeot 304, visiting nearly every one of Kenya’s famous game parks. Watching this magical mystery land unfold, as the car stereo played an eclectic selection of tapes, my infant mind was unable to tell apart what I saw and what I heard, namely lions, giraffes, tangerine trees and marmalade skies. 

Dad loved long road trips, taking us across Uganda, Dahomey, Togo, and Cameroon, as well as the four corners of the countries we lived in: Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. Nor did he miss an opportunity to stopover on our way back for home leave, sailing the RMS Pendennis Castle from Cape Town to Southampton one year, and touring the sights of Cairo the next. 

By the time I was sixteen I had seen a kaleidoscope of cultures, wildlife, landscapes, and traditions, enough to last a life time. But, alas, I kept moving.

Madagascar was out of this world, a hybrid culture of Asian and African influences, resulting in fascinating animistic rituals, and with a unique flora and fauna unlike anything I’d ever seen. Only its kleptocratic government was familiar. 

I was boarding at the American Lutheran Missionary School in Fort Dauphin. With just 32 other students, grades 1 through 12, running around barefoot between a 4-roomed schoolhouse, Mission Children’s Home, post office, and church all surrounded by a white picket fence, it was like were were living in the Little House on the Prairie

I left in 1979, but Africa endured in my dreams, under my skin, until I came back six years later to work as a free-lance journalist in Ethiopia. The famine of 1985 opened my eyes to the continent’s woes and profoundly changed my outlook. I was glad for a bit of rest and relaxation when I won second prize in the United Nation’s 40th anniversary ball raffle at the Addis Hilton: two weeks in the Yemen. Crossing that ancient land was one of my favourite all time journeys.

Another six years would pass before I returned to Africa again, this time as a gorilla conservationist. Subsequently, I would spend the next two decades visiting and working in twenty five national parks in Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Gabon, Cameroon, South Africa, and Uganda where I now reside.

My experiences were not confined to Africa. During my final year at boarding school my parents moved continents. But I soon found them, living in a leafy suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Moving again was made easier by Ceylon’s island life, but once more I was trying to find new friends and comprehend a powerful new culture. Asia was a constant distraction. There were birdcalls I didn’t recognise, plants I’d never seen before, curious sensations, and fragrances so sweet and untroubled, I felt as though I was floating on air.

‘A stupa is a stupa is a stupa,’ said my father as we travelled from one Buddhist temple to the next, in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, KandyRatnapura, Galle, and Unawantuna Bay. Nothing could stop us (except occasionally two buses passing on a mountain hairpin turn). Rich in history, ritual, and religion Sri Lanka was strangely intoxicating to all who dropped in. This of course was before the outbreak of the civil war - now ended.

After completing a scuba diving course with Arthur C. Clarke’s Underwater Safaris, I soon had my sights on more watery destinations. Seven hundred kilometres south west of Sri Lanka was Maldives, an archipelago of nearly 1,200 islands, where the longest road was four kilometres. It seemed like a good choice for my first ocean dive. Mr Clarke was none to happy when he learned they had taken me down to one hundred twenty feet. 

In March 1980 we moved to Singapore. The city-island-state was an entirely new experience. For the first time we were living in a place with shopping malls, skyscrapers and highways. It was both thrilling and frustrating, not least for the lack of culture and wilderness. To celebrate my eighteenth birthday my father drove my brother and me to Rawa Island in Malaysia. It was to be my last hurrah before returning to Canada for a higher education. 

After three successive universities, I returned Singapore in 1985 to work as a free-lance journalist. My parents had moved again to a new posting, so I rented a room in a high-rise apartment in Ang Mo Kio, near the causeway. Keeping that as my base, I spent the next six months travelling north through Malaysia and Thailand

I hitchhiked most of the way, and whomever gave me a lift often gave me a tour of the sights too, affording me a unique insight into these lands and providing colourful material for my articles, published in the Singapore Monitor and Bangkok Post. I visited the Pahang Jungle, Penang, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok, Chang Mai, and Chiang Rai, finally ending my journey at the Golden Triangle, where I lived for a month in a stilted wooden hut suspended over the confluence of the Mekong and Sop Ruak rivers. Heaven!

Hoping to secure more permanent writing work I eventually wound up in Bangkok. Alas, there wasn’t enough to sustain me and, in need of a financial boost, I soon went into low orbit around Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where my parents were now living. Continental shifts were coming thick and fast, and soon I had moved again to England, where I would stay a while.

Preoccupied elsewhere, it was two years before I made my way back to Asia, for a holiday in Jakarta and Bali, Indonesia. Slowly, seductively, I was called back again, this time to Sri Lanka, for a World Bank conference on conflict minerals in 2006. On this occasion I met with my old friend Arthur C. Clarke for the last time before he died. 

European destinations were always a feature of home leave. It was hard to avoid them on the way back. Rather than route us through Heathrow every time, my mother and father tried to mix it up. Hence, we visited Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, Athens, Rome, and many a chateaux, vineyard, monument, and relic in between. 

London was the city we frequented most, as it was my grandmother’s birthplace. For this reason, in 1986 I chose the British capital as somewhere to finally settle down. I was 22 and hadn’t had a permanent address in eighteen years. During the next twenty I lived in a small flat in north London, but travelled across Britain and the rest of Europe, visiting France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. 

South America
I only ever got a glimpse of this beguiling continent in 1974, on a whirlwind itinerary that took us from Dar-es-salaam to Rio de Janeiro, via Johannesburg. After a few days in Brazil, we spent a week with friends in Caracas, Venezuela, before flying up to Montreal via New York. 

North America
New York epitomizes this bold continent better than any other city. With its tall shiny buildings, big cars wheeling down broad streets, good food and snappy people, it never fails to invigorate. After Pan Am began scheduling flights directly from West Africa, we dropped in regularly, once on July 4th 1976, America’s bicentennial. The flotilla of tall ships sailing into harbour were an inspiration to watch from my uncle’s 44th storey Manhattan office.

During the Nineties and Oughts work often took me the United States. Nineteen states and one district to be exact -  MA, CT, NH, VM, NY, NJ, DC, GA, FL, TN, MI, IN, MN, ND, WI, IL, CO, CA, OR, and WA - with countless journeys to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle

Paradoxically my home country Canada is the one place I’ve travelled least. Yet not until I experienced Vancouver Island did I begin to appreciate the true beauty of North America. 

My favourite country on the continent is Mexico. In 1984 I travelled by bus from Mexico City to Acapulco on the Pacific Coast. Recently I’ve been flying into San Jose del Cabo, Baja, not least because my parents now live there in their retirement. A heady mix of sun, desert and deep blue sea make this a great holiday destination. And there’s nothing quite like watching grey whales migrate while sipping margaritas by the Sea of Cortez. Todo magia!

Today I live in the middle of sunny Africa, in a suburb of Kampala where I write novels and guide safaris, regularly visiting some of the region’s most spectacular wildernesses. That’s not to say I no longer visit outside countries. Last year I stayed four months in Baja working on my second novel. And on my way back to Uganda I spent a month in Hollywood, three weeks in London and three weeks in a remote cottage in northern France. The journey never ends!

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