Homefront is speaking...
We have been busy with the preparations for months now and would almost forget that our trip also has an impact on our family and friends. That’s why we ask ten questions to our parents, sister and brother, niece and nephew and some good friends.
1. If you think of Africa, which three things will come to you first?
Wild animals, a large number of cultures and the beautiful, versatile nature are the most frequently mentioned terms. Liesbeth, Kathleen's sister captures it in two words: 'When I think of Africa, I see a heartwarming chaos.’ I am pleased that our family and friends look at it a little more lightly than I do. Since we have made the decision to go, I see a lot of elephants in de room.
2. What do you think about going to Africa?
As soon as we change the subject to Africa, Kathleen's father's eyes start to shine. He lived in the Belgian Congo until he was 14 years old and according to his own words, these were the most beautiful years of his life. He’s excited that we’ll go to Africa. ‘I sincerely wish you’ll have the same experiences as I had In my childhood. The hospitality, the cheerfulness, the huts that, if you look closely, are very ingenious build.’ He even hopes we’ll join a funeral! Kathleen's mother rushes to add: ‘someone else's!’.
‘A funeral' continues Kathleen's father 'consists of 1 day of mourning because of the loss, but is followed by 2 days of partying to drive out the evil spirits. And do you know what’s best of all?’ he asks in my direction 'All women of the village dance topless.’ His eyes start to sparkle even more. I ask the name of the village. Some information is crucial to complete our journey.
3. What do you think about cycling?
Everyone is unanimous. Nobody had expected anything else. My brother explains: 'It is travelling with a minimal footprint, you show commitment to where you are and it is easy for people to get in touch with you. That fits perfectly with how I know the two of you.’
4. What do you think is the best part of our journey and what do you think is the most dangerous part?
These are two different, complementary questions, but the answers seem to correspond surprisingly often. Chris, a good friend of Kathleen, expects the unknown will be the most beautiful part we’ll encounter: 'strange habits, unexpected meetings and special rituals.' My father calls the same unknown as the most dangerous part: 'You’ll never know how the people and the animals will react and what the weather will be. But I am happy with the way you travel. On a bicycle you will really have to make contact with the locals. That’ll give you protection'.
And that's not all. The enormous diversity of landscapes, the big five and the different cultures also come by when we talk about the most beautiful aspects of our journey. But the same answers are also given for the most dangerous parts, although other terms are used: the vast deserts and savannas without water, shelter and help, the wild animals that also live outside the reserves... 'Do you know that?’ And the rebellious people and tribal conflicts. One friend even whispers the word ‘cannibals’...
Chris summarizes the two questions, probably without realizing it, into one answer: ‘In my opinion, the greatest danger is that you’ll fall in love with that continent and won't come back anymore’ I can’t help smiling a little: I can live with this being the most dangerous part of our journey!
5. What do you think we’ll miss the most during the trip?
Anouk, a niece of Kathleen, is very sure about this. ‘That only can be Belgian fries!’ Coincidentally Kathleen and I go out for dinner that evening. I can't resist ordering a dish with Belgian fries. Where I normally eat them few by few, I now eat them one by one very consciously. Anouk might be right!
Still, I expect there is one aspect that I will miss even more and both Jochem, a good friend of mine, and Wouter, a good friend of Kathleen, are mentioning this during the interview:
'I expect you’ll miss the sanitary facilities.’ That indeed is one of my biggest fears. I love being able to take a shower in the evening after a long day of cycling. No problem if the shower is freezing cold or if it consists of a small river, but you can make me very happy if I can rinse off all the dust and sweat at the end of the day...
Some weeks later I visit the tropical institute for the necessary vaccinations, I am told to watch out for fresh water. Worms can live in there and penetrate through your skin. At the next appointment at the tropical institute I ask if I can wash myself in a running river... 'No, that's fresh water as well' is the answer... 'But can I wash myself with a washcloth?’ The doctor looks at me with pity. ‘No, that's not possible either; it remains fresh water.’ Finally, she helps me out of my last dream... One that I didn't even realise I had... 'In Malawi they get the water for showering directly from the river.’ I realize what comes next: 'so there you even have to be very careful if you are taking a real shower'...
Kathleen's father knows his daughter best: 'Clouds, you're going to miss clouds.’ Not for me; I appreciate the sun so much that I see a threat in every cloud, no matter how small. But I remember very well that on our previous trip in Uzbekistan, after a cloudless sky of 4 months, Kathleen saw a really tiny cloud. She was bouncing on her bike of happiness.
6. What should we not forget to take with us?
Here the practical things come up: malaria tablets, a camera, sunglasses and sun oil, warm clothes for the cold desert nights, a phone…
Jori, my cousin and godchild, thinks more about the moments when we are having a hard time. ‘You have to take something with you that really reminds you of the Netherlands and Belgium and that you can’t buy in Africa. But of course it shouldn't take up too much space, it should be practical and can preferably be used several times... You always have to eat, so I'm thinking in that direction.’ After he has rejected a box of Dutch meat-snacks, he suddenly knows: 'a pack of pancake mix!’
7. Our theme is: 'How can Africa inspire us'. Do you think Africa can inspire us? How?
My mother is convinced Africa will inspire us: 'the simple way of living and being satisfied with the things you have, even when it's very little. We in the West could learn a lot from that!’ The answers of others are often in line with it. The community spirit of Africa, taking care of each other, being happy despite the shortcomings, putting things into perspective. The enormous amount of creativity and always coming up with solutions...
Wouter and Chris, both working as therapists, are curious about how people in Africa deal with desire, sobriety, finiteness and the existential aspects of life. How do the people in Africa experience boredom and loneliness? These are aspects that I would never come up with, but I realise that we can probably learn a lot from the Africans in these areas. I intend to keep these aspects in mind when cycling through Africa, although I realize that I will have to practice on the right questions I have to ask to get the interesting answers.
My father does not respond so much to the question, but rather to the consequences of it. ‘I think that the theme is a strong and good starting point and will serve as a guideline to move forward. If you take people seriously and want to learn from them, show interest and regard them as equal, they’ll want to help you to move on!’
8. Would you like to make such a journey yourself? Why (not)?
Anouk doesn't have to think long about that question; last year she has been to South Africa with her sister and parents. ‘It was my best holiday so far! The children over there are so happy and the safaris... I’ll never forget that! But I don't want to go by bicycle!’
Even before I have finished my question, Jori's eyes start to shine. It’s clear that he also has the travellers-genes. ‘Yes, I would love to do that! I've never been to Africa before, but there you can see and find things you won’t find here! I would really love to do that', he emphasises once again.
The answers of the other people we interview differ between 'yes, immediately if I could put my life here at home for a year 'on hold' to 'I can't imagine a much bigger punishment’. Anyway, I am pleased that the vast majority have other priorities. Because few people actually get on their bikes to Africa, we will be able to experience the authentic Africa!
9. What does it mean for you that we leave?
Juno, my 8 year old niece, takes a seat next to her older brother, whom I am interviewing. I ask what it means to her that we’ll leave for South Africa for a year. She keeps it short. ‘I hardly ever see you anyway, so it means little to me.’ Her father, my brother, starts laughing... ‘Dad, I’m right, am I not?’ I’m down to earth right away. A few weeks later she has her birthday. This year, I decide to pay some extra attention to it...
Kathleen's mother answers what all parents say between the lines: ‘It's going to hurt! And at the same time you two have to do it! It is your big dream and in the end I’ll learn from it through your stories!’
10. Staying at home, what do you find stimulating for yourself about our journey?
‘It stimulates me enormously to read and learn more about Africa, both through your blogs, as well as through the atlas, Wikipedia, books and the internet'. This is the summary of most of the reactions.
Jochem, who is currently doing a professional acting training, adds that the fact that we 'give up everything' at home and leave work for what it is, inspires him. ‘You just follow your heart.’ I know that may seem the case on the outside, but the word 'just' doesn't belong in that sense as far as I'm concerned. I regularly can’t sleep for hours. Do we estimate the dangers in the right way? Will I get work when I come back? What do I cause to the people I love, especially to my parents?
There are regular moments when I want to withdraw and continue to live my normal, nice, Dutch life. But as soon as I think about the exercise of looking back on my life laying on my deathbed and have to tell what I’m proud of, I realise that I very much would like to answer: 'Our bike trip from Rotterdam through dark Africa to Cape Town!’