By Colin Field.
The trip was jinxed with mishaps from the start. The airline lost my bike on the way to Accra, Ghana for starters. I’d come to do some bicycle touring, but didn’t have a bike. It showed up ten days late.
In Northern Ghana, after a puncture-laden ride through the country, I got arrested in Tamale. They busted me fair and square. The officers shouted at me, brandishing their AKs while loading me into the back of a navy blue Land Rover. They threatened me with five to ten years in prison as we drove to the station. Thankfully I had $40 US in my pocket. And thankfully, in Ghana at that time, that was enough to buy my freedom. Otherwise I might still be there.
In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso I spent three days in a concrete box of a hotel room, sweating, vomiting and losing control of my bowels, before finally mustering the energy to get to a hospital. The place was filthy and discouraging: random goats roamed through the open-air waiting room and getting a blood test was a risky game of clean-needle roulette. The blood smear results came back positive: malaria. The disease left me with a lethargy that lasted for weeks and relapsed multiple times.
I spent Christmas Eve in a brothel in Mopti, Mali because there was nowhere else to stay. The place was filthy, even by third-poorest-county-in-the-world standards, and the sexual advances from half-naked, toothless and sweaty prostitutes still haunt my dreams.
Christmas Day I boarded the 40-foot Petit Baba, a pinasse heading up the Niger River. Forty-six other passengers boarded that same day, along with all their baggage and a ton of goods bound for Timbuktu.
The massive diesel engine roared out fumes for the next 40 hours, the boat never stopping. I was one of the lucky ones with a meal plan: dirty, undercooked rice that tasted like muddy brown river water and fish that wasn’t quite cooked through, every meal for two days.
On New Year’s in Timbuktu, a midget stole my camera bag while I was shaking hands with Ali Farka Touré. I had 24 rolls of exposed film in the bag. Everyone in town knew who stole my stuff, but no one, not even the police, were ready to do anything about it.
And finally, when I’d had enough of this silly adventure, and wanted to book my flight home, I learned the airline I flew in with, Bulgaria Airlines, had gone out of business three weeks earlier. My ticket was useless.
But you know what’s crazy? I’d do it all again in a second. It will always qualify as one of my worst trips ever, but it was also one of the greatest adventures of my life.