Sailing and I have never been close. My brother was the sailor of the family, while I stuck to cross channel ferries and the odd canoe. But the faint call of the marine had been more recently amplified by a friend’s tales of calm transparent lagoons, wide vistas and sunsets with lighthouses, welcoming bays and easy-gliding yachts slipping soundlessly into comfortable harbours. Our friends Dawn and Andy came with us for a week of sailing in the Adriatic, and with a friend of mine from Basel days, Edith, now living in Pula, as our skipper. We first spent a couple of days looking around the marvels of Pula – largely the classical buildings of the Romans, including the Arena, the sixth largest amphitheatre in the world, the Temple of Augustus, built in the first century AD, the Kastel on top of the hill, and the Sacred Hearts Museum, where I closely inspected an interesting exhibition entitled The Bird in the Bush: the covered and the exposed in Istria’s sexuality. We also had a delicious fresh fish lunch together under cover from the pouring rain on a terrace overlooking the marketplace. We joined the yacht, the Jonathan Silver, on the morning after a sudden and gigantic flash-storm of tropical dimensions washed us all out of a bar near our B&B in the centre of Pula. We had to delay our start for a day because of sharp headwinds better suited to North Sea Olympic trials than leisurely excursions and a wind apparently known locally as the “summer-killer”. We spent that day with Patrizia, an old friend of Edith’s, at her house in Pula, where we received spontaneous and unstinting hospitality for most of the day. Patrizia’s house is designed for four pugs and an arrogant cat. Humans have to negotiate their way around the dography of the house while the pugs watch and scheme from their cover of woebegone expressions. On a rain-swept afternoon we all had not one but two meals with wines, liqueurs, grappas and beer, scarcely without leaving the table, but as soon as one of us did vacate a chair, a pug would stealthily climb into it, maintaining its unblinking face of watchfulness and infinite douleur. Patrizia is one of the world’s great welcomers. But the mops (pugs) were somewhat disconcerting.
We set sail the next day, but not until past noon, and we had to make up for lost time on the motor with a jittery sea and an unhelpful wind. Getting around the boat wasn’t all plain sailing given the very different conditions of the ocean: Dawn had a very nasty fall, hurting her knee badly on the first day, and there were cuts, knocks, bumps and bruises throughout the trip, proving that all except the skipper were landlubbers. (Dawn’s fall was later revealed to have torn ligaments anda hairline fracture of her knee, which puts her into a special category of courage since she spent most of the holiday trying to walk off the pain). The gangplank walk from boat to quay where we moored each night took on a new and solemn significance. My modest but dramatic contribution was in trying to get into the dinghy from the boat one evening for shore leave with Andy to sample the local hostelry. I slipped and crashed noisily into the safe haven of Andy’s lap, nearly dragging Edith with me, and with flailing legs rocking the dinghy like a bull rodeo, all to screams of laughter from the ladies, completely unconcerned for my health and welfare. The episode was lovingly filmed in HDTV and is regrettably available on Facebook. Andy tended not to fall, but he hit his head a lot and was the solid and dependable first mate during the trip down past the islands of Otok Unije, Mali Losinj, Cres, and Ilovik before returning north and west. There were some magnificent sights: a full hunter’s moon glittering on the smooth surface of a calm bay in Ilovik, a dark and stormy night in Martinscica, a beautiful sunset looking over the harbour of Unije from the Clavary Chapel Church on the crest of the hill, lunching onboard after swimming in crystal clear waters in Losinj, flying fish and even a hint of dolphin. The holiday featured all types of sailing, and was all the more enjoyable for it, as we experienced the thrill of a 12 knot wind, as well as twiddled our thumbs in the doldrums, and survived a green-gilled morning of rolling, crashing and chopping through the waves. In between we had a lot of laughs, many debates, and spirited arguments merging into bigger shared experiences and memories. The skyline and coastline were wide and constantly changing; the landmarks dipped, dodged and disappeared without warning; and the big round bowl of the horizon was full of different possible outcomes, threats and opportunities. (Or maybe that’s just the Adriatic).
I returned rather gloomily to the Cote d’Ivoire on a three-stage sixteen-hour journey on the day after an enjoyable last night with Alli in Pula, with dinner overlooking the Golden Gate and a drink at the James Joyce Bar. Of course my luggage was lost for a couple of days between Trieste and Abidjan. I wasn’t even surprised since I was routing through Rome and had prepared for the occasion by loading the suitcase with dirty washing, miscellaneous unread documents and metres of unresolved cables, plugs, adaptors and connections. When it arrived I put my mind back into gear for a long autumn of work. While I had been away, Mohamed, who helps me with local advice and assistance, some driving and other tasks, had been masterminding the welcome back of his aunt from Mecca, where she had gone on the Hajj. This is the pinnacle of the Muslim experience: essentially to walk around the Ka’ba, as well as to tour and view the nearby holy places of Islam. The month-long expenses paid tour is offered by the government to some 300 family heads each year, and is considered a great honour for the family and the community where they live. In this case it is Abobo, a vast shanty suburb of more than 2 million souls, the poorest and most ignored part of Abidjan, with one brutal swaithe of an arterial road running through it but practically no stable infrastructure. There are thousands of cribbed and confined houses of wood, corrugated metal, plasterboard, plastic and bamboo. There is no running water except the occasional standpipe; most of the lighting is by kerosene and power is by battery or generator. In times of civil conflict, Abobo often takes the lead. Its people genuinely have nothing to lose, and some 75% of the young men there are actively planning or preparing to leave and try to get to Italy as refugees, according to Mohamed, also a resident.
In Mohamed’s close family set-up, his mother and all her older sisters are referred to as “mother”. So while his mother/aunt was away, Mohamed and his brothers, sisters and cousins had done a complete make-over of her dwelling as a welcome home surprise. Her reaction when she got back home would have looked good on TV, and the family celebration on the following Saturday, to which relatives, religious leaders, and friends (including me) were invited, was a memorable occasion. It featured ten chanting imams, together with a long train of friends and more distant relatives, singing something about welcoming Mohamed’s aunt from the Hajj before all sitting down on a carpet beneath a canopy. I was referred to at one stage as the blessed benefactor, which seemed somewhat exaggerated, since I had merely followed the advice of offering what I could afford as a contribution to the imams’ sterling performance. The imams continued the chant-conversation, fingering their chapelets (rosaries), and praising people in the name of Allah. After about half an hour, with much laughing and good nature, they suddenly stopped, thrust their chapelets deep into their pockets, picked up the coins and notes that had been offered and divvied them up between them (according to age), then said grace for lunch, whereupon we all tucked into bowls of steaming rice, plantain foufous and spiced fried chicken. The procession then led away along the same path as it had come. Afterwards, the aunt gave me two little bottles of holy water, known as zamzam, with apparently miraculous healing properties and capable of satisfying both thirst and hunger, from the sacred zamzam well of Mecca, for me and for Alli.
My month ended with breathless visits to Niger and Burkina Faso, where I was again mostly detained in hotel rooms writing or editing speeches, and where the weather was blisteringly hot. Niger in particular is one of the hottest countries in the world and is unsurprisingly trying to build its capacity of solar power generation with generators located in the hottest parts of the country. In Burkina Faso during a gala dinner in front of assorted Burkinabe notables, politicos and dignitaries, I was pulled on stage by the singer in a local dance band and invited to get down and dance with the shapely troupe. How could I refuse? My galumphing performance is already finding its place in the cultural and geopolitical situation of Burkinabe and the wider Sahel family of countries, and I am assured a warm welcome when I next come, apparently.
Tare da buri mafi kyau