Simple question and one asked in various forms from non-converts since the urge to head off around the world really took hold.
Providing an answer has never been simple. There’s usually some mumbling about experiencing and seeing new things, meeting people from different backgrounds and just enjoying the feeling of freedom.
In future, it can be easier to explain. Travel, at least this form of lengthy overland travel, is all about days like Sunday, December 21, 2014.
What we thought lay ahead as we headed south on our first full day in Cote d’Ivoire was another bush camp. Maybe, if we were lucky, we might actually get a campsite with showers. They might even be hot. There may even, whisper it quietly, be wi-fi.
Such are the wishes of a truck full of overlanders as we near the time to pull off the road for that night’s stop.
What we got was Yodibikro.
Way back in Gibraltar, on our first night of the trip – seven weeks, but seemingly a whole other world, ago – Steve asked the main things on my list of things to do and see as we headed around Africa.
Not sure how coherent my answer was with a mouthful of food and after a couple of beers, but think it went somewhere along the lines of trying not to have such a list in mind as past experience has proved it is generally the things you didn’t see coming, had no way of knowing about or expected very little from which turn out to be the most memorable.
And none of us saw the village of Yodibikro coming. Right until we were in the middle of it. Even now, doubt any of us could come close to finding it on a map – if it is even on any maps – but what followed will live with all of us and had us all walking around with fixed grins for the entire night.
As the evening progressed, little groups of us would congregate in the middle of the chaos, shaking our heads, swapping stories and repeating phrases along the lines of “this is crazy”.
All on what should have been a routine day – eat up the miles heading south through Cote d’Ivoire with the capital city of Yamassoukoro as the main target before setting up camp ahead of a final dash to the beaches around Abidjan and settling in for Christmas.
The previous couple of days had been routine since rolling away from five days of relative luxury in Bamako. Days on the truck had been subdued and even our two bush camps, either side of a pretty straightforward border crossing punctuated by the latest in a string of temperature checks in the fight against ebola, had seen us all head to our sleeping bags early.
But rather than head straight onto the truck after breakfast, we headed the couple of hundred yards to the adjacent village – as arranged with the chief when he became the latest caller to camp the night before – for a quick visit.
Initial wariness among some of the villagers was soon replaced with a warm welcome and smiles, especially with the now traditional showing of our cameras for them to see the pictures they were starring in – always guaranteed to raise a laugh.*
Having paid our respects to the chief (not sure quite what he made of the packet of biscuits), we piled back on the truck to make our way down the track to the road. Only to pile straight back off again moments later as a puncture ripped through the side of one of the tyres.
With Steve largely occupied under the truck, we felt pretty safe getting our cameras out to catalogue the moment as he and Joe carried out the necessary repairs and had us back on the road in half an hour.
And we thought that was the excitement for the day, bar unexpectedly rich pickings at a store for a quick stock-up and a cook group stop for the night ahead which sparked much confusion with the three-way translation between French, English and Japanese in the market.
One of our current cook group knows what he is doing around food. The other doesn’t. One of us speaks Japanese, but very little English and no French. One of us speaks no Japanese and, despite an A Level pass years ago, only enough confident Francais to order a beer and the simplest of items (plus useless stuff about working as a douanier at an airport and owning a cat called Miki).
Not sure we quite bought what we needed (or that either of us knew exactly what the other was intending to cook), but we did succeed in finding the best bread of the trip.
The plan was to rustle up some form of pasta dish when we pulled up for the night’s stop, which appeared imminent when we turned right off the main road to the capital and onto a dirt track which was supposed to take us to a lakeside camp for the evening.
Where it did take us was down some narrow avenues between trees which saw more foliage and insects pitched into the back of the truck and through a series of small villages nestled in gaps between the lush vegetation which has sprung up as we have headed south from Mali.
Last of those was Yodibikro.
Originally, it was just to drive through the customary smiling, waving, if bemused, locals as the big yellow truck made its way down the road, white faces looking out and waving back at them.
But with the lake showing no signs of revealing itself (it never did), Joe and Steve took the decision to do a quick about turn and see if the village was a possible camp.
By now, the crowds had grown – largely children running and smiling along the side of the truck who, we were told, had never seen white people before – and as Joe stumbled across the one man in the village who spoke English, he and Steve were escorted off, with Michael as translator, for an audience with the village elders.
While they considered and voted on our situation, we remained on the truck surrounded by a crowd of smiling faces, who broke into cheers every time a camera flashed.
Eventually, our delegation returned with the news we were camping right there in the heart of the village and we decamped into the excited throng to set up the kitchen and prepare the evening meal ringed by an audience five or six deep held back – not always successfully – by a semi-circle of plastic chairs, which appeared from nowhere, for us and various tribal elders.
Cooking really doesn’t get much tougher than producing food for the 19 of us, plus the handful of villagers considered important enough to get a seat, under the watchful, rowdy (but never threatening), cheering throng, all while sat next to a roaring fire in sweltering conditions with the whole of our group mixing a helping hand with grabbing as many pictures with our hosts as they could and generally soaking up this impromptu magic moment. One or two even had marriage proposals.
All with one or two whisky-related complications thrown in.
If our cooking and general behaviour entertained our hosts, the appearance of our tents took things to another level as we readied ourselves for bed.
My mosquito net, erected in seconds, with me settling down for a sweltering night wedged between the truck and the road drew a crowd all of its own.
But gradually, with a couple of villagers posted to stand guard around us and keep people away, the onlookers drifted away (or were ordered home by their parents) and we were left largely alone to reflect on a magical evening which could not have been planned and could not be replicated if you tried.
And that is why we travel.
* The locals are having to fight for starring roles in pictures with some of the livestock, particularly in the expanding series of pictures of goats in things. As well as the legendary goats in trees, we have had goats on a roof, goats on a bus, goats on graves, goats on a three-wheeled bike (albeit dead), goats on woodpiles and, in this particular village, a goat in a bowl. Missed goats on a pile of pottery.