Monday, 20 November 2017

'Early Morning Run up... Leicester Peak, Sierra Leone'

We all have a rivalry? The person we like to beat above all others. Whether it's at school, work, the army, corporate, and I dare say it, a residential home.

A guest runner this morning. If 'Mavis' were a cartoon character, he'd be the German version of Andy Capp, who is Willi Wakker. If he were a movie character he'd be one of The Wet Season Bandits, from 'Home Alone'.

The race 'begins' in an Italian restaurant off Baker Street. London. Fine food, fine wine and bravado aplenty. Mavis, the two-trick pony, has become three drinks clever. Somehow, we end up talking tennis. Mavis thinks he can beat me. We've never played. 

Anyway, Mavis has one arm (his right) significantly shorter than the other. The side where he carries his wallet. He tells the table he'll win in straight sets. For my part, I'm planning to use a non-stick frying pan.

Mavis is throwing out challenges with all the randomness of a Freetown baggage handler - touch all the black ones, pick out the red one.

As the clock ticks towards midnight and the cocktails taste superb, we've switched to sprinting. This race could take place on the streets of London. In the words of Fat Boy Slim... 'right here, right now'. 100 yards? 200 yards? Perhaps from the restaurant to Baker Street Tube Station.

To have the last word, Mavis is happy for me to have a head start. For my part, I'm offering to carry a Corby Trouser Press as a handicap and win. I think Mavis has all the athletic abilities of the much-loved pressing device from the 80s; in fact, he resembles one.

How can he win? He has one leg shorter than the other, his left.

Common sense prevails. We'll race in a few weeks’ time, back in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The 'Leicester Peak Challenge'. We’ll run at 0600 hrs from the gates of the Country Lodge Hotel. First to the top of Hill Station. A 6.5 km climb to the summit. We clink glasses.

Mavis is confident. He has one key advantage. He's around 35 years old and at his peak. I'm giving him at least 20 years.

He's going to win by ten mins and doesn't need to train. I'm more worried about the Corby rubbing on my shoulders, and I'm doubly not training. So there... we touch glasses.

A race director is appointed, Launny. A WhatsApp group established...

One week later.

Bum, how could this happen, I have a rash. Bum, it's all over my bum and crown jewels. Agony. I can hardly walk, not alone secretly train. The only prep possible has been checking Amazon for said trouser press and frying pan.

I'm heading to Africa in four days, the rash is blistering and seeping and spreading. Still, good news, Mavis isn't training, he's too busy. Told me so himself.

I'm going to have to do something I never do. Yep, it's serious. Cancel the race? Delay my trip? Admit the trouser press was a foolish idea? Ask for a postponement? Never in a million years.

Even Baldrick would admire this plan. I know, I'll go to the docs. Though, not before I've consulted Dr Internet for three days... I take a selfie of my bum... I study it and think of Mavis...

The doc looks at my red, blistered rear end, prodding it with a green biro. The diagnosis takes 10 seconds. An old person ailment? I can't divulge, too embarrassing. However, rhymes with a well-known brand of crisps typically packaged in large cylindrical tubes with a plastic lid. 

Ten days of intense antibiotics. Marvellous...

I fly to Monrovia feeling pathetic. The race is in two weeks’ time. Word around the campfire is Mavis will dream up a face-saving excuse, I'll have the prize. The best trophy one can have, bragging rights.

Mavis is playing it cool. He's seemingly going ahead. At last, the rash eases, I can begin to move.

One week to get fit.

Race day. 0600 hrs. He's a no-show. Ha, knew it. A white land cruiser bobs down the hill. Out pops Mavis, he looks and sounds over-caffeinated, as always. His hair in a neat bun with an off colour red scrunchy. We shake hands. The handshake is as limp as, well, a soft Frenchman's handshake. We pose for a photo.

Hill Station is shrouded in a cold mist. Launny brings us to the start line. Gentlemen. Ready. 3. 2. 1. Go.

Let slip the dogs of war...

Mavis is from Toronto. His countryman Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." I live for days like this, win or lose. The banter, the build-up, the physical element.

So, what happened? Well, you didn't have to be a latter-day Nostradamus to see this one coming. The greatest certainty since you last wandered past your local council football pitch on a Sunday morning and the Dog and Duck were leading the Red Lion 12-0 with five mins to go.

Er... hello, who's this?

It's like watching a young army officer with an unfolded map, unfolding a deckchair at the same time, on a windy day.

Where have you been? The rugged fellow in the black and red shirt on the right completed the course nearly nine mins quicker than the shirtless fellow, the chap on the left, who incidentally needs work on his abby dabby dos.

In the words of Kipling and hanging above the changing rooms at Wimbledon;

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same"

Forget such nonsense, let's go and celebrate big time at the Hub Hotel. Kool and the Gang. Beer and Pringles. And, you should have seen the crease in my chinos.

Ah, yes tennis. Back to 1977. Guillermo Vilas had lost to Jimmy Conners 16 times straight and was the complete underdog in the US Open final. Guillermo was an Argentinian rock and roll tennis player of the era. Hair like yours Dave. He beat Conners in the final, against all the odds. At the press conference, he delivered this memorable line, as he touched his heart, "no-one beats Guillermo Vilas 17 times in a row." Mavis, be inspired.

Of course, there'll come a time when the baton is passed. Let's fast forward those 25+ years?

... a drafty residential home in Dorset, southern England. I'm boring the other elderly folk with my past exploits. There's a story of whipping Maureen's arse up Gloucester Peak in Guinea over 25 years ago. I apparently beat him by more than half an hour. No-one's listening. I tell them the last time Mavis beat me at anything Burger King was still a prince. They're distracted. They're playing dominoes. The nurse is tucking the blanket tight around my knees; I'm taking my medication. She closes the window; there's a breeze.

Mavis appears he's around my age now in 2017. He's come to gloat. I mean visit. Carol, the hottie, who's 83, bless her, loves his Canadian accent. He does look good. Plenty of grey hair, but seriously should a man of his age be sporting a bun? A yellow cashmere draped across those serpent-like shoulders. Deck shoes, no socks, still needs calf implants I see. I pretend to be asleep. Great to see him again... 

Doug is in his pomp; he only has ten mins to spare, his open-top sports car is double parked in front of my blue mobility scooter. Why can't it rain?

Mavis, it'll never happen! In any event, you'd better spare me more than ten minutes. Now then, where's my Neil Young LP...

See you in Amsterdam for the Christmas special.

Friday, 3 November 2017

'Early Morning Run in... Banjul'

'Cameo' is not here. I walk to the end of the road. I look back down the narrow strip. It's not exactly the south of France. This place is real and raw and sad. Music blares out from the nightspots still open. The wild dogs cry out in the night. As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company, I know that I must do what's right. As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti. It's Africa... I guess. 

Our RV is the Senegambia Hotel, in Kolili, in Gambia, at 0600 hrs. I'm nervous. I have lined up a genuine celebrity for the guest runner slot this morning. I met him signing autographs and handling the Banjul paparazzi in a local casino five hours ago. Nothing much good happens after midnight. But on this occasion? A flamboyant entrepreneur. For blog purposes; code name, 'Cameo'.

Welcome to The Gamba, as President Trump might call it. My first impressions? Well, Banjul is completely whacky. Then again, so is London where I'm editing in a Starbucks off Baker Street. Ten minutes ago, a maniac sat at the next table to me. He had no smartphone, no iPad, no laptop. He just sat there, sipping his coffee. Complete madness...

Will Cameo show? I share banter with the local getaway drivers as a back-up. My chosen driver as a Plan B is Mr White. 

Whoa... 25 mins late, screeching to a halt, viola, the eponymous Cameo is here. Downtown Banjul is 20 km away. First light 40 mins away. Cameo smells of Old Spice. He says he's late. No sugar Sherlock. I jump in.

One of my life rules, don't talk shop unless you're an astronaut or a celebrity. I'm neither, and he is. He leads the small talk from behind his Aviator sunglasses. His large gold signet rings glisten off the top of the steering wheel, as we skirt the Atlantic, he could be signalling ships. Usual stuff at first; weather, politics, local news. Mr Cameo then tells me of his close uncle's Viagra regime. Somewhat surprised, and to keep the conversation going, I ask if he knows the medical name for Viagra. He doesn't; "Mycocksafloppin." We laugh and push on; we're running late.

We park outside his favourite lunch spot, 'King of Sharwamahs'. 

'Cameo' isn't a natural athlete. Legs like pipe cleaners. Shoulders of an aspirin bottle. He likes his carbs. He hails from Manchester, from prime Lebanese stock. He has considerable business interests here and in Freetown. Everyone wants a slice of him, including me.

Downtown Banjul is instantly shabby, unloved and filthy. It's 0700 hrs as we move north from Nelson Mandela Street. As always, Africa is on the move early. The poverty is plain to see. It's enough to make a Canadian lumberjack cry. No-one asks for anything. I take photos at will.

The plan is to jog around downtown Banjul; drive back to the Senegambia, park-up, hit the beach and jog along to the Coco Ocean Hotel, for brekkie overlooking the Atlantic.  

We set off at an alarming pace; it's difficult to run this slow. It doesn't feel natural at 5 km an hour. We might as well walk. As I'm about to say something, Cameo swings around, one of his heavy-duty gold chains nearly takes my head off, he gasps, "bro, let's walk bro."

I look back at the 250m we've covered and say, "OK bro." The conversation quickly turns to the most prominent 'bro' of the lot, the recently departed President. The one and only, President Jammeh. 

This despot had vowed to rule this tiny country for 1,000 years, at God's will. He declared a cure for aids. Gambia became the Islamic Republic. He took the country out of the Commonwealth. Thankfully, his term was cut short by 978 years. 22 years of this fool was enough. The great fixer couldn't fiddle the last election. Suddenly this wasn't FIFA; votes counted.

The other six parties managed to come together, stay together, and unite behind one candidate. This togetherness, the use of observers, and social media to get the vote out did for old Jammeh Dodger. But, would he leave office? He wouldn't. The people had voted with their marbles. He was going nowhere, citing voting irregularities. A hefty dose of Saxa time.

We’re moving northwest along Independence Drive. Cameo shows me the vanity projects and Jammeh's burnt out bakery. Talking of boondoggles, how corrupt is West Africa in real life? I usually recite this tale.

Once upon a time, a West African President visited President Suharto as Indonesia was collapsing around him. The year was 1998; it was the height of the Asian financial crisis. After finishing the first day of the state visit, the two presidents were alone in the splendour of Suharto's Presidential Palace. 

The West African President asked Suharto how he lived in such splendour when everything seemed so dire. He'd observed Suharto was a wealthy man and asked him the secret of his 'success'. Suharto paused and asked the West African to look out the window. Suharto pointed and said do you see the shopping centre? The African nodded. Suharto exclaimed, well, 10% to me. Suharto pointed and asked him to look out the second window, he asked, do you see the office block? Well, 10% to me. He asked him to look out the third window and pointed at a sports centre, and said, 10% to me.

Six months later Suharto visited West Africa. He was shocked by what he saw. Terrible roads, no electricity, no mains water, crumbling infrastructure and poor people everywhere he looked. Later the two presidents were secured in the opulence of the Presidential Lodge. Suharto asked the West African leader how he lived so well when the country was apparently so sick. He complimented the President on being powerful and successful and asked the secret of his success.

The West African leader paused, smiled and asked Suharto to look out the window. There was nothing there. The African laughed and said, 100% to me. He asked him to look out the second window, again nothing there. He roared with laughter and pounding his chest said, 100% to me. 

Back to Jammy Dodger. He's now living in opulence in Africa's equivalent of the Costa del Crime, Equatorial Guinea. His reign ended with a stand-off at the OK Coral. The OK Coral scenario being the Presidential Palace. ECOWAS finally decided Dodger was toast. Senegal, which surrounds Gambia, sent troops across the border and quickly closed on Dodger. 

Dodger then completed his version of the Great Train Robbery before flying into exile. You might say, the most significant rip-off since the invention of Velcro. He negotiated for his cars to accompany him (a Bentley and so on) and emptied the safe. Some say he took $15m; some say more. 

The tyrant, who ruled by fear, made the 'old French exit' (leaving quietly without even saying goodbye) and was gone. Poor Gamba was left penniless, at least the dictator was out. Hopefully, the new Gambia will emerge. Good luck to President Barrow. 

Cameo is telling me some great stories as we weave slowly around the sights in downtown Banjul.

We leave Banjul and head back to the beach. Cameo's a spent force...

We 'jog' along the beach to our breakfast spot.

I've enjoyed Banjul a lot. What's made the trip special is the road trip element. Travel and characters and memories, an excellent mix. You can travel by yourself (Casablanca, Tunis) or you can have someone special along; your spouse, a partner, a close friend, a wingman. Someone who's excellent company and funny. My close friend 'Cameo' is all these things and more. Elements of this post are true, and some edge into the caricature for fun.  

Thanks, Cameo. I know you've been nervous about this post. Stand the Lebanese hitman down, all good 'Bro'. Let's enjoy breakfast...

Only a few posts this year. Tunis, Casablanca, and Banjul. A Christmas special? Amsterdam in December. Should be fun...