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Durban to Damascus

Middle East

Adventurous and brave or naive and stupid, with a backpack full of old T-shirts and a head full of young dreams, I left for my journey from Durban to Damascus.

Why did I leave on November 14 from Durban and aim for Damascus? Because they alliterate? There was no rationale. And the same went for my trip. There was no planning and I had no expectations. Two T-shirts, two shorts, a packet of two-minute cardboard-flavour noodles, malaria tablets, a tent about as waterproof as a sponge and an A4 size map of Africa were all I carried for 79 days. Level-headed rational people who listen to their concerned loved ones who believe we live on a “dark continent” need not apply for this sort of adventure.

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Player of games: Yusuf Omar plays the ancient game of Senet with an old spice man in Cairo.GOING PLACES: Yusuf Omar hitchhikes in Sinai, the bridge between Africa and Asia.

Being on a student’s budget, the decision to hitchhike was initially about the money. But it became so much more. What better way to try to understand a culture than to eat, travel and sleep like the locals?

Kombis in Mozambique pack 30 people onto 12 seats and you’re a full-paying customer as long as your feet are in the vehicle. Five minutes into the sand dunes you are skidding on tyres as bald as a hippo’s bum, with 10cm of dashboard between you and a head-on collision. When I hitchhiked through Maputo I got picked up by a man on his way to a Lubolo wedding ceremony. Naturally I joined him.

I spent three nights and three days packed like a sardine (and with sardines) in the hull of the Ilala Ferry crossing Lake Malawi. I ate the same coconut tuna curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for a week with a family I met in Tanzania. And washed with half a bucket of cold water in their mud backyard as all the neighbours pointed fingers and laughed at the mazungu – the first time I had ever been called a white man.

One morning I woke buried under a sheet of snow, about 1 000m high on the peak of Mount Sinai, to the sound of the sunrise call to prayer from four mosques in the valley bellow. Showing true Bedouin hospitality, a tribesman took me into his humble home and warmed me up with a bowl of hot potato soup and covered me in camel-skin blankets.

But things were not always romantic and fun. Sometimes I had to be tough minded, perhaps to the point of foolishness, or I would not have made it to the other side of the continent. I slept in police stations and on park benches. In Malawi, a flesh-eating worm laid eggs in my foot – I had to improvise self-surgery with tweezers and a nail clipper. One morning in Maputo I learnt that an AK-47 wakes you up faster than a cup of coffee, when I had three police officers wave their guns in my face demanding money for the return of my “passporte”. In Tofu, Mozambique, I ran out of money, with the nearest functional ATM 200km away, so I went homeless on a beach for four days, eating mangoes and coconuts I picked up off the ground.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite place. For peaceful hikes where you won’t see another soul, nothing beats Swaziland.

If you like architecture, the once overindulgent but now derelict Portuguese villas studded throughout Mozambique define rustic charm. Malawi is Africa for beginners because the people are as warm as the weather. Tanzania has the most diverse range of food my tongue has yet sampled. If you want beautiful beaches, go to Zanzibar. Kenyans know how to party. Cairo is the New York City of Africa, the city that never sleeps.

Travelling solo was the ultimate adventure. Without the comfort of a companion, I was forced to talk to strangers every day. Everyone had a story to tell, and I had the time to listen. The people I met and the strange places I ended up in define my memories – the liberation of waking and deciding what I wanted to do; and the decision to turn left or right at an intersection where one road leads to Zimbabwe and the other to Malawi. There is a hospitality extended to the lone desperate traveller that camera-wielding, fanny pack-bearing tour bus “adventurers” will never experience.

Catching a ride in a long-distance truck is like flying first-class on the African highways. While it takes at least twice as long as a car (especially if you’re going uphill), trucks have a single bed behind the driver so you save on accommodation. They are also really safe and some have gas cookers. Travelling by land I saw the gradual change in landscapes. A speed that allowed me to watch the moonrise.

Ethiopia didn’t grant me an overland visa because of Somali rebels causing problems in the north, and the Sudanese referendum to split the country, made it a no-go zone. I had to fly from Nairobi to Cairo. My journey came to an end just 80km from Damascus – the world’s oldest city. You can’t rely on the humour of an irate immigration officer and I was refused entry to Syria at the border despite my patchy beard and throwing every Arabic word I knew at him. Apparently Syria is the most paranoid country in the Middle East.

On February 1, I caught a flight out of Jordan, on what was supposed to be the easiest leg of my journey, having hitchhiked for almost three months. Amid the Egyptian revolution, I ended stranded for three nights on the cold marble floors of Cairo International Airport. I took seven flights in five days to get home; Amman to Cairo to Athens to Istanbul to Doha to Johannesburg and finally to Cape Town. My backpack is still stuck somewhere between Cairo and Johannesburg and I don’t expect to see it again.

South Africans have this perception that we live in the best country on the continent and everybody aspires to be like us. The fact is they don’t. They see South Africa as rich and rough. They hear horror stories of Johannesburg shootouts and foreigners burnt alive. And as for South Africans fleeing to greener grass and finer sand in England or Australia, why look so far away when there is a bounty of opportunity in neighbouring countries?

I learnt that in Africa time only moves as fast as the person concerned. In Western society we have such a hang-up about time, to the point that it determines our lives. In Mozambique a minibus leaves when it’s full. If that means you wait three hours, you wait. Sometimes no one comes and it doesn’t leave at all.

The allure of travel has captured many young men’s hearts, and tearing myself back to real life was the most mentally challenging part of my journey. Now people often ask me how many kilometres I hitchhiked. I don’t know exactly how far I travelled, simply because it was never that relevant. The trip was about enriching myself. About looking back and laughing at the tough times. I respect my life, but I’m not afraid to live it.

See www.omargosh.com - Weekend Argus

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