Mali And Me

ONE thing about elephants that’s hard to forget. They are pretty big.

That, hopefully, will come in handy when trying to frame them in focus somewhere in the middle of a photo at some point in the next nine months, but when they are lingering in the corner of the room, it makes them pretty difficult to ignore (which also holds true about the pile of kit which has been growing in the corner of my flat).

As mentioned in a previous post, the elephant in the room for our Trans Africa overland adventure over the past few months has been Ebola.

And no longer can it – or the fairly constant questions about it – be ignored.

In the end, it was not any threat of the disease which forced a bit of a diversion around the affected countries in West Africa, but practicalities stemming from steps being taken to contain it.

Nala
Nala

Oasis Overland have been tracking the elephant over the last few months and after consulting, among others, the World Health Organisation, African Travel and Tourism Association and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they have taken the decision to turn east from Senegal rather than continuing south around the coast.

Instead of heading straight through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – the worst affected countries – the new route takes us through southern Mali (and possibly a bit of Burkina Faso) before heading back towards the coast and the original route in Cote d’Ivoire.

Overland trips have to adapt and it is all part of the adventure, but it is nothing new for Oasis. They can explain.

“Ebola is bringing many challenges, and as a group we need to be prepared that elements of the trip may need to change or be amended,” read our e-mail from Natalie at Oasis HQ, who has been keeping us informed, steering us in the right direction and answering any number of questions over the past few months. “It is still two months until we get close to the areas that have been affected and we will continue to monitor the situation.

“Mali is a country we know well from past trips, your drivers have been to before and visas are easy to obtain on route.  I should stress that the decision to travel via Mali is based primarily on us needing to avoid border closures rather than the chance of contracting Ebola.

Our tour leader Joe checking out tents and, below, stocking up the truck
Our tour leader Joe checking out our tents and, below, stocking up the truck

Created with Nokia Smart Cam“It is a hard disease to catch. However, we will be putting extra steps in place to ensure good hygiene standards on board the truck.

 “The route through Mali is not a new one for us.  We travelled this way for many years up until two years ago and in the past our groups have really enjoyed Mali.  As with our past expeditions, this is all part of the nature of a Trans Africa trip.”

The debate about how to deal with Ebola has not been the only thing keeping Oasis busy over the past few weeks.

On my visit to their base to drop off bulkier bits of kit a few weeks ago, our truck Nala – evidently the name of the animated love interest in The Lion King, but also the name of one of my sister’s Labrador’s mates – was undergoing a touch of paint and bit of TLC.

It has been stocked up, our tents tended and checked and our tour leader Joe has been wading through a pile of paperwork and the plans for the next nine months, taking a quick break to write about his preparations, before Nala and crew headed off to Gibraltar tonight. We fly out to meet it on the rock next Tuesday.

Preparations here have stepped up a few gears since the countdown to leaving work reached zero and there was finally time to crack on with the jobs which had been multiplying for months.

And, with one or two minor exceptions, the to-do lists for the trip itself are pretty much done – dutifully maintained, drawn up and written up each night, only to be immediately altered early the next day to accommodate my failure to get up as early as planned.

Visas are sorted (Ghana in the passport with pre-approval registration for Senegal), all jabs complete, malaria tablets collected, rucksack repaired, farewells said (and toasted) and piles of kit and clothes bought (some of it planned), dug out from storage and currently filling up the sofa and its surrounds in the front room of my flat.

The one major job for the trip left – before packing up my flat, bidding farewell to my car after 12 years and finding time to say a few more goodbyes, write a few more posts and learn how some of the new bits of tech work together – is to pack and one glance at those piles suggests my reputation for over packing is well deserved.

All (well, most) of this has to fit in one rucksack and a shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there's only the chair by desk to sit on...
All (well, most) of this has to fit in one rucksack and a shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there’s only the chair by my desk to sit on…

But it isn’t all going into those bags, those piles are everything that could go, not everything that will go.

There’s decisions to be made – old shorts, new shorts or both?; an old fleece which can be discarded after some cold early nights or the one which zips inside my waterproof and is more convenient, but not as warm?; iPad as well as MacBook Air? Whatever the answers (and the iPad decision is becoming easier due to the negative impact the latest update has had on it), it’s going to be a complicated process.

Suggest getting up on time to allow all of the morning allowed for packing on the to-do list.

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Come To Dust to Contort Yourself

IN comparison with the ground to be covered across the next nine months or so, the last week has not covered too much distance.

What’s a couple of trips to Bristol, one to Cardiff, a couple of nights out, more shopping (and spending) than you’d normally get me doing in many months compared to 39 weeks travelling overland around Africa?

And what is the relatively short sprint (albeit a considerable distance between musical styles) from Boards of Canada to James White and the Blacks in comparison to the inroads that trip will make into the A-Z rattle through my iPod?

But both musically and elsewhere, it has been a week of covering an awful lot of ground as two journeys – or, at least, sections of them – have neared their conclusion.

For the A-Z, we are entering the final stretch of the C section, almost to the point where D is looming into view and the desire to get through the final 100 or so tracks forms a type of “are we nearly there yet?” mentality – especially as number 2,000 heralds the entry into the home straight ahead of the new letter.

Away from the music, the journey has been through a success of daily to-do lists as the road to heading off to Africa has seen the miles clocked up at an alarming rate.

The final leg of that journey kicked off after leaving work and – once the effects of a later than planned finish to my leaving do had worn off – has seen a lot of jobs ahead of departure chalked off the lists where they have been sitting for some time, waiting for the short spell before the off when getting ready for it has become my full-time occupation.

Those preparations will be covered in more detail in another post (this one coming first purely by chance), but they have now reached the point where, if the call came through saying the trip had been moved forward a week, it would not be a major problem.

The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady

One last shopping trip in the morning for a final few essentials (socks, pants, toothbrush, you know the sort of thing) and all that is really left for the trip is to work out how to cram what currently covers my bed and the best part of two shelves in a cupboard into my newly-repaired rucksack and newly-delivered shoulder bag.

Packing out of the way (and the plan is to pair that with working out how to use my new GoPro camera, so look out for a video on how – or how not – to pack for an overland journey and, if in a charitable mood, you might also get to see my attempts to work out how to tie my new bandana) and the final few days before departure will be given off to packing up my flat.

All of which will be done to the soundtrack of my iPod as the race is on to get through those pesky Cs before leaving (the daily chunks of listening to them on the drive to and from work having to be replaced by other methods).

There’s also a chunk of newly-downloaded ABC tracks to catch up on after an afternoon spent getting my iTunes up to date with new albums, books and, courtesy of the vouchers which made up my leaving present, all five series of The Wire downloaded for re-watching on the road.

Weezer and Half Man Half Biscuit’s new albums will play a major role in that chunk, after The War On Drugs lead the way through the last batch of C songs, courtesy of four tracks starting with Come or Comin’.

But musically, this week has belonged to The Hold Steady.

They may have only cropped up once on this leg of the journey, with Constructive Summer, but they were responsible for one of those trips to Bristol to catch them at the Academy.

Not my favourite venue and, to be honest, the evening had started with a touch of “can we really bothered?” syndrome, but well worth the trip it was as they played a storming set mixing up new stuff with a healthy sprinkling of their back catalogue.

Where White Denim, also in Bristol, felt the need to add any number of flourishes to each track and stretch them almost to – and sometimes beyond – breaking point, The Hold Steady trimmed away any unnecessary flourishes and raced through tracks at a healthy clip, building as they went and heading off before outstaying their welcome.

They wrapped things up joined by support band The So So Glos – who were so-so – for a cover of American Music by The Violent Femmes, who popped up again on my iPod with Confessions, just as the second trip to Bristol (another spot of pre-journey shopping) merged into a sprint along the M4 to Wales to make a meeting with my account manager at the bank on time(ish). Thought it might be a good idea to go through some of the more bizarre transactions that lie ahead in the next nine months.

Elsewhere, The Beatles contributed three versions of Come Together – Primal Scream and Spiritualized chipping in with songs of the same name – while there were two versions of Elastica’s Connection, The Concept by Teenage Fanclub (from their excellent, fairly recently rediscovered Bandwagonesque album), Company In My Back by Wilco and Coming Home from Richard Hawley, someone who has never truly grabbed my attention but is making his mark whenever he appears on this trip.

Shack contributed Comedy, Pulp added Common People and regulars The Lemonheads (Confetti) and New Order (Confusion) popped up again.

As did Complete Control by The Clash, with which my brother in law kicks off his birthday each year.

There’s worse ways to mark getting older.

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Clones to Come To

STRANGE what memories a song can summon from obscure corners of your mind.

Taking the relatively small sample of the latest section of the A-Z journey through my iPod – which covered plenty of miles from Mull Historical Society to Bombay Bicycle Club – several songs popped up with strong associations.

Arcade Fire’s Cold Wind rekindles thoughts of walking across the frozen Lake Baikal in the middle of Siberia, while Coma Girl by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros brings back great memories of gigs with The Mighty Badger (one of their later offerings, it was also one of my favourites).

And Ryan Adams’ classic break-up track Come Pick Me Up – indeed, the entire Heartbreaker album – reminds me not of personal heartache, but an afternoon spent washing up and cleaning the kitchen.

Memoirs of music fans often tell grand tales of first hearing the track that changed their life – Stuart Maconie’s Cider With Roadies recalls him first hearing This Charming Man while travelling in the boot of a friend’s car – but they tend to creep up on me, working their way into my brain until they have taken firm root.

But that first (second and third) airing of Heartbreaker one Bank Holiday Monday afternoon in Cardiff has somehow stuck. Even in such unexciting circumstances.

Cleaning the kitchen was not on my to-do list when the day started with the early shift at work, back in the days when evening newspapers printed on the day they went on sale.

Having gone into the office way too early – bank holidays always had an earlier deadline – finished off pages with the overnight sport and put together some early pages for the next day, it was back home by lunchtime.

Not to a relaxing afternoon in front of the TV or out and about doing something productive (work out which one was more likely, given this was a bank holiday in Cardiff, so it was probably raining), but to an almighty mess in the kitchen.

It had been growing for days as part of a stand-off between flatmates – three of us who had been in the house for a while versus the new lad.

Three against one hardly seems fair, but the latest tenant to move into my old room (after my rapid move into the much bigger front bedroom the instant the original fourth member of our happy band had moved in with her now husband) didn’t let being outnumbered sway him.

Not only was he impossible to understand – a thick North Walian accent was mixed with a tendency to mumble and swallow his words – he also had a rather different view to keeping the house tidy to the rest of us (for my former work colleagues, getting him to do his share was akin to trying to get me to make a tea round).

The work was not evenly distributed, one of us looked after all the bills and handed us regular notes on how much we had to pay, and kept the whole thing ticking over. The rest of us cleaned up after ourselves, kept life as simple as possible and got on remarkably well.

But not the new guy. (This blog has a bit of a rule to avoid names where possible, but seriously can’t remember his. Sure he told us, just not sure we understood it.)

Not the actual washing up - it was much worse than this.
Not the actual washing up – it was much worse than this.

It all came to a head after he spent an evening cooking for himself and managed to use pretty much all our pans and cooking equipment, leaving them coated in some unidentifiable gunk.

Leaving them being the key phrase. Piled up in the sink.

Having sat there for a couple of days, despite a few increasingly impolite suggestions that he washed them up, we moved the whole collection to outside his bedroom door.

He responded by simply bringing them back downstairs, where they sat in an unwashed pile which grew as he left more unwashed plates and pans in its wake – some of which we had to remove and wash ourselves just to have something to cook and eat with.

It all reached a head the Sunday night before that bank holiday when another of his cooking attempts (thankfully not that frequent) left a trail of devastation which greeted me en route to work the next morning.

The note pinned to fridge the letting him know my true feelings was gone on my return, but the mess wasn’t and my patience ran out – sadly not, as planned, by dragging him downstairs and forcing him to clean up as he was nowhere to be seen.

So Heartbreaker – bought, as a lot of my albums were in those days,  on the back of  an Uncut magazine sampler CD – was popped into the stereo and the job of clearing up began.

And having listened to it once, it went on again and again as the clean-up went beyond merely working through the washing up, but moved on to a total overhaul and reorganisation of the kitchen – totally out of character for me, but such was the need to keep listening to this wondrous album, of which Come Pick Me Up was a one of the highlights.

The reaction of the man who sparked this kitchen frenzy  – the latest in a list of flatmates who could, and probably will, fill more posts on this blog – was negligible.

He said not a word about the note or transformed kitchen and soon started work on building a new pile of washing up for him to ignore and us to get frustrated about, prompting another, less polite note pinned to the fridge which contained one or two words he may have had problems swallowing.

That had the desired effect. Mainly because he found it as he walked into the kitchen with his visiting mum, who evidently gave him a dressing down to the extent that he not only cleaned up the mess, but appeared at the lounge door with a cup of tea for the rest of us before she departed.

The lasting impact was far greater on my musical tastes, sparking a love affair with Adams’ work that saw him pop up several more times in this section and a burgeoning interest in Americana.

But there’s still plenty from the indie ghetto which had been my musical home up to then, three versions of Come Play With Me by The Wedding Present surfacing in the latest batch of tracks, along with two of Coffee & TV (possibly my favourite Blur track) two of Come As You Are by Nirvana (unplugged and electric) and the wonderful coupling of Cloudbusting, almost certainly Kate Bush’s finest hour, and Sufjan Steven’s Come On! Feel The Illinoise!

As for that ex-flatmate. He moved out not long after (the rest of us would soon go our separate ways as well) but our paths did cross some time later in a pub in Cardiff and we sort of spoke.

Just had no idea what he was saying.

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A Charm, A Blade to Clint Eastwood

“You mean you forgot cranberry too?”

AND, with the words of The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping, the A-Z iPod blog returns from its Christmas break.

Yes, it is only October, but with alphabetical needs overtaking the constrains of the Gregorian calendar on this journey, Christmas popped up heading down some country lanes through Somerset on a glorious early autumn day.

It wasn’t quite Christmas In July (Sufjan Stevens’ offering to the festive selection box) and a lot of it was not even that festive – especially Christmas In Nevada from Willard Grant Conspiracy, which popped up twice and is welcome any time of the year – before The Waitresses wrapped it up with the first real jingle of bells.

That musical detour was excusable. After all, it is just following the rules laid down for the journey.

Far less excusable are the Christmas decorations which have already been hanging from our office ceiling for more than a week.

The view from my desk. In October
The view from my desk. In October

The reason, so we are told, is to inspire the advertising department as they start turning their minds towards sales for the festive period (even though most of them spend very little time in our office any more), but generally only serves to confirm the reputation of editorial as rather less full of Christmas cheer – at least until the seasonal drinks are broken open a lot nearer the actual date.

The decorations’ arrival prompted two responses from our section of the office – either tweeting pictures with exclamations of horror at the early onset of tinsel or digging around desk drawers for the lights and tinsel which were tucked away on Twelfth Night, if only to wrap around the screens of less enamoured colleagues the moment they stepped away.

It also prompted a revival of a long-standing argument with a colleague over the merits of The Waitresses’ festive evergreen – he hates it, while its mix of a good tune, Christmas cheer and healthy dose of cynicism puts it high on my (admittedly short) list of Yuletide favourites (alongside, rather obviously, Fairytale of New York, the more wilfully obscure I Want An Alien For Christmas by Fountains of Wayne and the more recent double entry from Smith And Burrows, When The Thames Froze and, particularly, This Ain’t New Jersey).

In years gone by, such an early onset of decorations, the seasonal aisles which have started to pop up in supermarkets, the first hints of Christmas adverts in the paper and, particularly heinous, the start of the X Factor, would have had me moaning as loud and long as anybody (it was more loud and brief this time round), but this year is not going to be a normal festive break.

For the first time in many years, my Christmas plans remain a mystery.

It will be somewhere in Africa. West Africa to be more precise. And the current provisional itinerary has us crossing from Sierra Leone to Cote d’Ivoire on Boxing Day, so a repeat of the last Oasis Overland Trans-Africa trip’s Christmas Day on the beach in Sierra Leone – complete with pig on a spit – is a possibility,

But anything involving that part of the world is subject to change at the moment.

Wherever we end up, it will be only my second Christmas spent away from the family – first at my parents and, for as long as memory serves now, at my sister’s with the brother-in-law on cooking duties.

The last one was, probably, 1987 when Christmas lunch was eaten in an Austrian mountain restaurant on a school ski trip.

Schruns, Austria. Not that we could see that far.
Schruns, Austria. Not that we could see that far.

December 25 was the only day on the entire trip when the sun came out and we could actually see where we were going – the reduced vision at one point leading to a group of us taking a wrong turn, heading off piste and facing a bit of a drop off the garage roof we were somehow standing on.

Visibility was bad, but not bad enough to mask how big a drop it was.

Skiing trips followed the Christmas breaks for many years – mainly because the first week of the new year is genuinely cheaper – which meant two festive traditions.

Firstly, Boxing Day meant a swift return to work to compile the day’s sporting news and results and free up time off over new year, while, less welcome, the big day provided a signal for my back to go into spasm.

Twice it went while sat at the table for Christmas dinner and left me barely able to get up. It was not, as my sister would probably claim, a way of avoiding the washing up. It bloody hurt and, despite being much better at handling the warning signs, still does when it goes again.

So regular was the Christmas backache and the ensuing rush to get me back on my feet for skiing, my osteopath rang in advance one year to suggest booking an appointment for the day they returned to work. It was needed.

The other annual preparation for a skiing trip was the compilation of some C90 mix tapes, which almost certainly included some of the tracks in the lengthy latest section which carried us from Phosphorescent to Gorillaz.

The Clash London Calling Tower Theater Show 3/6/1980Leading the way in this latest batch of songs were The Clash, who popped up with four different tracks – Cheat, City of the Dead, Clampdown (twice) and Clash City Rockers – while Sufjan Stevens appeared again with the classic Chicago and The Hold Steady (next on the live gig list later this month) surfaced with two versions of Chips Ahoy!

There was two outings as well for Christine by House of Love, a band which never really won me over totally, despite what my companion on many of those skiing trips thought of them. The same can be said about The Smashing Pumpkins and several friends. They contributed Cherub Rock (the Smashing Pumpkins, not my friends).

And there were returns from frequent visitors The Wedding Present (Cherez Richku Cherez Hai), Billy Bragg (Cindy of a Thousand Lives, among others), Arcade Fire (City With No Children) and Echo and the Bunnymen with the epic Clay.

Seasick Steve gave us Chiggers, a cautionary tale of dealing with little bitey creatures.

Let’s hope that’s not one that comes to mind too often come Christmas…

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