Journey to the Center of the Earth
Each time the king pauses for a breath, the man next to him says “jhoom” in a voice that could make Barry White sound like a soprano. The king’s own tones are soft and thoughtful, punctuated by gestures from his hands, both of which are adorned with enormous rings depicting two crocodiles that share the same stomach. The figures, which form Xs across his fingers, represent the importance of cooperation.
The only other sounds on the palace’s wide lawn are the screams of peacocks as they scamper past fallen fruits that look like tennis balls, as though the birds might be playing fetch. Earlier, the king had his public audience, which appeared lifted from the pages of a 19th-century explorer’s diary. Drums echoed as the sun filtered through the soft reds and yellows of the huge parasols that shaded the VIPs and the lines of people who had come to pay respects, with their offerings of bleating goats and imported whiskey in tow. Take off your shoes when you approach; remember to keep your head lower than the king’s. Feel his purely benevolent power as you bow to the ruler of the Ashanti Empire in central Ghana—or, if you look at a map of Africa, the crook of the elbow on the continent’s west coast.
But few people ever look at that part of the map, much less travel to this part of the world. The famous safari camps are all east and south. If the west is famous at all, it is for places like Tombouctou, distant towns that have magical names with mythical connotations.
But these places are real. And once upon a time, much of the world revolved around them.
I have spent my life and career exploring the Pacific Rim. Aside from parts of Europe and North America, I am less familiar with the Atlantic Rim, where—thanks to people from Columbus to the passengers on the luxury liners of the early 20th century—modern travel was born. Their routes tied the continents together like shoelaces, Europe linking to North America from Gravesend, and that indentation of Africa reaching toward the curve of South America, like the last puzzle piece of Gondwanaland.
I want to see what has happened in the days since, to explore the now under-explored. I want to run the rim of the Atlantic Ocean to see how the waves lap on both sides. But because Europe is as familiar as last year’s vacation, and North America is home, I plan my trip in two legs, beginning with a journey down the west coast of Africa with Seattle-based tour company TCS Expeditions.
TCS specializes in private-jet tours to remote destinations, where upscale amenities often are in short supply. The company arranges for the best available accommodations, but the true luxuries of a TCS trip are the opportunities it provides (an audience with the Ashanti king, for instance) and the staff’s insider knowledge. TCS sends employees to each destination a week before guests arrive so that they can confirm every detail and smooth any potential bumps before they arise.
In January 2009, TCS will debut a private-jet trip that explores the Atlantic Rim, encompassing nine stops in West Africa and South America (see “Atlantic Crossing,” page 108). The itinerary for my trip involves joining one of TCS’ existing tours temporarily as it slides down the African coast before heading off to exotic locations in Asia. Our first stop, before Ghana, is the desert nation of Mali.
The Niger River once served as something of a barrier across Mali, keeping the Sahara Desert at bay. But today, in the city of Bamako, the river seems unimposing, as flat as mercury and disturbed only by canoes and by fishermen standing as still as herons. The air glitters with mica, presenting the opportunity to smuggle the desert home in your lungs.
Mali is a reminder of what the world once was, a place where distance is expressed in differences. Go over a hill, and you change language zones. The marketplace in Bamako slides through French, Arabic, Bambara, Bobo, Bozo, Dogon, Jula, and more. If you are not sure which language to address someone in, simply look at the person’s clothing. Bamana wear mud cloth, a dyed fabric that celebrates the utility of water; the Soninke have perfected the art of dark indigo tie-dye; the ?Tuareg are called “blue people” for a reason.
In Ghana, just south of Mali, emphasis is not on how you dress but on how you go out at the end. The nation’s famed coffin shops offer countless options for interment, including giant Coke bottles and shiny black shoes.
One night in Ghana, on the Bight of Benin, I walk out the back of our hotel and onto the soft beach. I look west, toward the New World, and am reminded of an interview I once conducted with an expert on primates. The scientist told me that some theorists believe monkeys arrived in the Americas on rafts, back when the continents were closer together. Tonight, in the age of private jets, they seem closer than ever.
After a flight in the padded comfort of TCS’ 757, I still have beach sand in my clothes when we arrive in Namibia the next morning. Sand is the attraction in Namibia, where giant dunes border the shipwreck-heavy Skeleton Coast and hide chameleons that look at you with one eye while using the other to watch for beetles that leave tracks in the pattern of snowflakes. We drive quad bikes below the dunes, searching for ?Welwitschia—a plant that resembles a prop from a science-fiction movie—and translucent geckos, whose skin is so tender that they cannot be exposed to direct sunlight.
At the edge of the Namib Desert, the dunes drop into a maze of canyons. The setting sun seems magnified tenfold as it glints off our caravan—the quad bikes now replaced by Land Rovers—which follows a road that becomes a lane, gives way to a track, and eventually trickles to a slot in a landscape where antelope lurk in shadows. We arrive at our destination to find a camp set up with a multicourse meal, which we eat while musicians play marimbas with resonators made from hollowed-out animal horns.
“Feel up to a walk?” I ask a friend after the meal. We venture a few hundred yards into the pure dark—except that it is not dark at all. Every step reveals more stars. And because this is the Southern Hemisphere, each star is entirely new and unfamiliar, like the best party guests ever.
From Namibia, the party continues for me, but now I am flying solo. Parting ways with my TCS tour mates, I head west, then north, for the gradual trip home. In so doing, I leave the landscape of the unknown for territory that I have never seen but already feel well acquainted with.
If Africa’s west coast is a blank spot on the map, South America’s east coast can be as familiar as a letter from home. Rio de Janeiro’s beaches look like Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, with haze rising in the salt air under the giant arms of Jesus. The Amazon resembles the inside of a terrarium, the pink backs of river dolphins breaking the surface. And Buenos Aires is the sound of tango, the click of fingernails against guitar bodies, the rustle of a hand softly pressed against the back of a woman wearing a silk dress.
Traffic in Buenos Aires blares a marcato rhythm, swirling past the balcony where Eva Perón paved the way for Madonna to make a movie musical. I go to the Recoleta cemetery to pay my respects to Evita, but end up instead watching the feral cats among the tombs. Next door, in the cathedral, I crack my head on a low-ceilinged staircase and see Southern Hemisphere stars again, closer this time.
And then I find the river. The Niger was a silver trickle, but just outside Buenos Aires, the Río de la Plata is impossibly wide, brown, and flat. Its banks are broader than the horizon, and it is all too easy to mistake the river for the ocean it empties into, which eventually drifts to the Bight of Benin and the other side of the center of the world.
Crossing the Río de la Plata is an imperative because of what I will find on the other side: the Republic East of the Uruguay, a nation whose name seems to be a direction, a state of mind. In Colonia del Sacramento’s historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the cobblestone streets are quiet except for panting dogs and the cooing doves that have set up housekeeping in old scaffold scars along the sides of adobe buildings. And in the main square of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, a man frantically pedals his bike around and around, a gramophone perched delicately on the handlebars, blaring a march to the unhearing cars as he dodges men carrying their cups of maté.
Drums for the Ashantis, marimbas in Namibia, guitars in Buenos Aires, and here the echo of them all, the record turning as the biker spins around the square as if he simply assumes everybody is riding along with him. But riding along, I had learned, is the point of the journey.
Back in Namibia, I had reluctantly taken a township tour; poverty voyeurism, I believed, could not be good for anyone. And though acceptable by world standards, Namibia’s townships are still places where eight or nine people live in tidy brick or patched-wood houses smaller than my living room, sharing less than a dollar a day among them. But as I walked down the street, a girl, maybe 5 years old, approached me and held her arms out. She wanted a piggyback ride.
Less than 20 years ago, when Namibia was under apartheid, such an act would have been unthinkable. But the little girl had no concern for politics or the past. She simply trusted that a stranger would be willing to throw her on his back and take her for a ride. Which of course he was.
At the beginning of the trip, the king’s right-hand man said “jhoom.” When I asked what that translated to, I was told, “Listen to the man, right on, hallelujah,” all rolled up into one.
And now I believe the little girl was telling me something similar, with no need to translate. Her pointing finger showed me the beauty that lies at the center of the world.