All posts by John

John is a freelance journalist and has written for magazines including New Scientist, Science (online), Bicycle Times, and Slate. His work has appeared in daily newspapers and online news sites, and he has also reported on health and the environment for public radio stations. Despite his last name, John's not generally a violent person.

Off we go…

Amid calls to credit card companies and trips to the travel clinic for a few vaccinations, I’m finally sitting down to start this blog. I’ve never been a particularly fruitful blogger, but I figured a two-and-a-half-month trip through Europe and Africa might spur me into action.

With the exception of our Peace Corps service, this trip is more about meeting people than any we (my girlfriend Anne-Claire and I) have taken. We’ll check out a few museums, churches and castles, especially early on in Ireland and France as we make our way to Morocco. The depth of history of these sites is too much to pass up.

But as we move south through the Sahara to West Africa, the people more than anything else harbor their countries’ history. Etched on their faces are ancient memories stretching back thousands of years – memories of living at the edge of existence, of coaxing crops from dry sandy soil, of the vital importance of their communities to survival in the Sahel.

In a way, we’ll be looking for that same history in the people we meet in Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal. Anne-Claire has several host families she lived with while studying in France, so we’ll see them. But we’re also taking the opportunity to stay with people kind enough to open their homes to us along the way. In part this helps make several months of traveling financially feasible. But we also thought, what better way to learn about a place and its people? We hope to move across the insular border that isolated hotel rooms can sometimes create.

Our plan is to literally cross a few borders as well. After a few hops on planes and trains to southern Spain, we’ll head through Mauritania to Senegal, across to Mali and into Niger. It’ll be the first time since we left 5 years ago that we’ll see the friends and family that made Peace Corps such a terrific experience.

I’m probably most excited about traveling overland extensively in this part of the world for the first time in my life. Apart from a short trip to Benin from Niger, I don’t have any African border crossings under my belt. Even the trip to Benin was enlightening, crossing from one of the poorest countries (Niger) to one 30-some spots higher on the to the UNDP Human Development Index (Benin). Just filling out the declaration form on the Niger side was difficult, as the customs officials didn’t have enough pens to go around. In Benin, every house in the villages along the road seemed to have a tin roof. Most huts outside the main cities in Niger had roofs of straw or (like mine) mud packed between timber crossbeams that melted in the tumultuous storms of the short summer rainy season.

Tin roofs. And pigs. Goats and sheep were everywhere in Niger – free-range livestock for a Muslim country. But just across the river in Benin, it was like walking into a porcine refuge. Perhaps it’s those stark contrasts writer Paul Theroux says are so “revealing.” In an interview for A Sense of Place, Theroux said, “The border is drama, misery, real life, strangeness, and the actual site line of the dotted line one sees on a map.” He goes on: “The international airport in the capital is the place to avoid if you want to know how the country works.”

So I suppose this first post is a rambling attempt to suss out what we hope to get out of this trip and what this blog will become. On extended trips, I usually like to send e-mail updates, but in an effort to avoid cluttering the mailboxes of friends and family, I’ll post here periodically about what we’re up to, where we are, and who we’re meeting.