by Eric Boa
Reckless driving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
We live in an age of golden travel. Never has it been so easy to go so far and wide. Yet moving around also has limitations, bounded by where we come from and constrained by political upheavals, conflict, social unrest and natural disasters. Hence the Constant Contradiction: you can more or less go anywhere at any time but have to consider the potential risk of disruptions and worse. Many have a low risk threshold – better Benidorm than Bukavu (in DR Congo). For others, all risks can be managed, nay ignored, in the pursuit of the unknown. Call me reckless, but boldly going, as they say in Star Trek, has been a lifelong pursuit. Here’s a little of what I’ve done and learnt.
I lived in Clarkston, a residential area to the south of Glasgow, until I was 12 years old. Beyond Clarkston lay farms, fields and woods. This is where my exploring began: climbing gates, squeezing through fences and falling into a river, my first reckless act. I returned home nervously with sodden shoes from the aptly named Waterfoot, but undaunted. Nearby Floors Farm was where Rudolf Hess, deputy to Adolf Hitler and unrepentant Nazi, landed in 1941. My mother pointed out where he made his parachute landing after the plane he flew solo from Germany crashed, but I never visited. His journey, ostensibly to sue for peace, was utterly reckless and he was incarcerated until his death in Spandau prison in Berlin in 1987.
When I started at Hutchesons Boys Grammar school I had to take the train into Glasgow. The suburban rail network was expanding in the 1960s and I looked eagerly at its map's outermost stations – the further away the better. I discovered that I could flash my railcard at the platform ticket inspectors, who controlled access to trains, and go much further than the railcard limits. The first major journey was to Helensburgh, about an hour from Clarkston, and requiring several changes of train. Sometimes I went with friends. We returned as soon as we arrived. The journey was the thing.
Our longest journey (three hours there and back) was to Stirling and for this I had a home-made copy of my railcard, suitably modified (or so I thought) to appear legitimate as I flashed it at the ticket inspectors. My crude copy would have been immediately revealed if closely examined. But it wasn’t. I never thought of this as reckless, yet I had no back-up plan if rumbled and hadn’t considered the reactions of my parents once alerted to my illegal travels. On the way back from Stirling, me and my pal were given a selection of sweets by a friendly adult who’d been fixing machinery at a sweet factory. Should we have been suspicious of this stranger? It never occurred to us.
I’m quietly astonished at the freedom I found to travel when I was barely out of short trousers. I moved on to bigger things and more recklessness. In 1970, aged 18, I was accepted by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). I had no idea at first where I was going to be sent for a year (Molepolole, a village on the edge of the Kalahari desert in Botswana), or what I was expected to do (teach subjects I knew little about), or who I would be teaching (secondary school pupils, some of whom were as old as me) or who I was going to share a house with (Richard Pooley, Only Connect’s editor). So many unknowns and yet with thrilling prospects ahead, at least until we had to start teaching and the hard work started.
My parents seemed unperturbed about me going to a country that was next to South Africa and part of a region where political turmoil, insurrections and subversion were rife. The 24-hour news cycle was some years away and it was difficult to grasp what was going on without first-hand knowledge. I wrote regularly, which may have helped soothe any worries, and applied myself to teaching. I also began to witness more acts of recklessness by others: the school caretaker who broke a leg falling off the water tower ladder; the guests at a neighbour’s dinner party who unknowingly ate hash brownies; speeding bus drivers on dirt roads.*
Growing up means testing your appetite for recklessness. I was just beginning. All this was a prelude to my most reckless journey so far: a 4000-mile trip through Southwest Africa (now Namibia), down to Cape Town, then back through Lesotho and Johannesburg to Molepolole. I went with Alan Buntin, another VSO, each of us with around £100 for four weeks. We never thought about visas or any other impediments to crossing borders. The VSOs we visited in Ovamboland, a restricted area bordering Angola, were amazed that we’d made it all the way there. So were we after waiting two days to cross the scrubby Kalahari in an open cattle truck, then a further day or so in another truck full of empty fuel drums to get to Windhoek, the capital of Southwest Africa, full of people of German descent wearing what looked like lederhosen.
We hitch-hiked the 1300 miles to Cape Town in 36 hours and four lifts. One thing I’ve learned from my decades of travels in the Global South (and Italy) is that driving in a car is the most dangerous activity. Accepting lifts from strangers notches up the dangers. We had Christmas on the beach, where I got the worst sunburn I’ve ever had and discovered that my towelling swimming trunks, made by my mother, had a fatal design flow. They went backwards when I dived into the sea. These were undoubtedly my most reckless acts so far, risking my health and potentially contravening the puritanical mores of White South Africa: do not over-expose on the beach.
Attempting to discuss apartheid revealed a different type of recklessness. We imagined that we could talk openly about the divisive policies enshrined in South African law; yet merely mentioning the pass laws (which restricted movement of non-whites) or the creation of ‘native homelands’ raised hackles. Several times we had cars swerve towards us as we were hitching. Some stopped down the road, apparently offering a lift, only to speed away when we gathered our rucksacks to approach the car. It took us some time to figure out that our appearance – longish hair, tie-dye shirts, jeans – was provoking these reactions. How you dress can be reckless, inviting adverse reactions based on prejudice that identified us as hippies and communist revolutionaries.
I packed a lot of recklessness into my year in Africa but I was only just starting. My first job was in Bangladesh, where I drove a Land Rover around the country looking at bamboo clumps. I relished driving in the Bangladeshi style, waving my hand to establish my rightful place on the road and jumping ahead of long queues of lorries and buses to get on ferries. My recklessness strayed into dangerous driving and my first accident was a reminder to modify my behaviour. In Indonesia I used the same robust style of driving – purposeful – to navigate the hectic traffic of Jakarta. Or so I thought. Several people said they would never drive with me again. We all have different definitions of reckless. I’d never bungee jump yet others do so with glee.
Reckless crater-watching at the Telica volcano in Nicaragua
I’ve just returned from my twelfth visit to Colombia. The most common question I (still) get is: “Was it safe?” It is indeed a dangerous and violent country, but like the curate’s egg “only in parts”. In Colombia my friends and colleagues advise me on where to go and how to behave (unlike Charlie Nicholl, who visited Colombia and wrote the utterly reckless and brilliant The Fruit Palace: An Odyssey Through Colombia’s Cocaine Underworld). I listen carefully to advice and I know you can never eliminate risk.
I’ve visited the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on many occasions. I survived, reader, and the closest to danger I’ve come is in a car.
My appetite for recklessness has undoubtedly diminished, though my thirst for adventure remains. Recklessness has, without consciously thinking about it, provided me with many benefits. Venturing into the unknown teaches you important lessons about how the world and people work, and has given me many rewarding experiences that shape how I see the world.
Reckless walking on Beachy Head in the UK
*Eric diplomatically fails to mention the accident in which he was thrown out of the back of a pick-up truck being driven recklessly on Botswana’s main north-south dirt road by the editor. The truck did a 360-degree roll. Eric lay motionless in the road for several seconds but then got up apparently unharmed. Unlike the 60-year old Canadian owner of the vehicle whose arm had been broken and whose wife drove us to the nearest hospital. Ed.