Just as full of possibilities is Latin America. Music is everywhere. The cultures, once devastated by the colonial presence of some pretty mean-spirited southern Europeans, are now interestingly hybrid. The language is easy and is pretty much the same everywhere: once you learn enough to get by you’re all set for thousands of miles. Most of the people are welcoming and interested in foreign visitors. It’s exotic enough to send a postcard but easy enough to be a holiday. The beer is cold; the religion is relaxed; the sky is mostly blue; there is stuff to do. It’s a fantastic place.
For years, looking at maps of West Africa, I’d imagined it to be similar. French is manageable. The region is comparatively small. Religion, a syncretised Islam, is fairly gentle and beer drinking. The cultures are exotic with a layer of French predictability. And it is the home of drumming; I imagined music to be everywhere. (I once went to a party in Shanghai at the home of an American woman, a friend of a friend. Everyone was to bring a percussion instrument. I brought one of those little hollow wooden frogs with a stick that you scrape along its ridges to make an echoing, croaking sound; others brought xylophones, drums, and spoons. The woman knew a lot of Africans – there is a surprisingly large number of Africans in China – and two thirds of the guests had brought drums. By the time we arrived, the organic, homemade beat could be heard at the bottom of the apartment block. It was hair-raisingly, tummy-tighteningly, jaw-droppingly incredible. Everyone was calling people on mobiles saying, ‘listen, listen’.)
So I had this picture in my head: West Africa is like a big, exotic, Francophone Central America. Somewhat poorer, certainly, and as a white tourist you stand out more (one of the things I love most about travelling in Latin America is blending in). But I had a can-do impression about travelling there. Years ago I sketched out a West Africa overland trip but the war in the Congo was spilling out, Algeria was messy, Cote d’Ivoire was at war with itself, Liberia and Sierra Leone were bloodbaths. So I started looking at Asia and whoosh, there went several years of my life.
(If I sound like the kind of trustafarian with nothing better to do than travel the world, I have misrepresented things. The fact is I have the kind of job that can be done anywhere, and throughout my 20s and early 30s I took advantage of this to a ridiculous degree. As a result, now, in Sydney and pushing 40, my close friends are scattered. I’ve struggled to feel ‘settled’ anywhere, my accent is a strange, unplaceable hybrid, and I have no real savings of any kind. But I’ve had a blast and I don’t regret any of it. I still travel, but not in the endless, aimless, purposeless ways of before. I thought, finally, I may be done scratching my itchy feet. Maybe.)