14 October 2012

Africa: Thumbs Up Africa Blog 2 - Between Two Continents

Photo: Elizabeth Mbundu/RNW
Sierd van der Bij, Neda Boin and Christiaan Triebert - Dutch hitchhikers in Africa.


Only 350 kilometres of Mediterranean blue sea separates me from Egypt, once I set foot on the ferry in Iskenderun, Turkey. As I approach the African continent, I am still trying to make sense of it all.

To guess what's underneath that mass of water would be easier for me than to describe my expectations of the continent ahead of me. But, I already talked a lot about this in my last blog and enough about me. Instead, I want to tell you more about the present, about the scene that, as though in a theatre, is playing out before my eyes. It's fascinating.

This ferry we are on is an interesting one because it connects Europe and Africa. The lounge deck is filled with Arab and Turkish men. Some are watching Hollywood films; others are playing backgammon. The rest are just sitting and staring. The only women on that deck are the receptionist, busy at work in the far corner of the room, and my friend Neda.

Just out of Syria

The ship is full of truck drivers, travelling families, pilgrims and refugees. The truck drivers are mostly Turkish, the families are from Egyptian descent, the pilgrims are from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the refugees just managed to get out of Syria.

This afternoon, I was talking to a family from Aleppo, the Syrian city which has recently been heavily bombarded by the country's government. Khalid, the youngest of the six, is on his way to Benghazi, Lybia. He is just five years old and, together with his family, is running for his life. The simple fact that he is on the boat today makes him happy. He smiles and in Arabic he tries to tell me that the sea is full of boats. He is right.

A member of his family tells me that they wish to go to Malta. I can only cross my fingers and hope that the people there will be able to see Khalid's smile. I sincerely hope this kid will also have a chance to start a family of his own, preferably in his beautiful hometown, and that his offspring can climb the citadel of ancient Aleppo.

An alternative

On the way to Africa it is hard to ignore the Arab spring. This ferry line was opened two months ago for one reason, and only one reason. It is an alternative route for those who would normally travel overland through Syria and Jordan. So, now the pilgrims can go to Mecca, the refugees to wherever they want to go, the truck drivers to Cairo and we can hitchhike to Cape Town.

Twenty hours of acclimating. Twenty hours left to get a glimpse of the Arab world.

One deck below, the wives of the men above are making themselves comfortable. They are smiling and probably gossiping about the men watching Hollywood movies. Everybody is smiling tonight. An easy night, except for the receptionist and the captain. She tries to persuade the last passengers to finally bring their passports to her desk. The captain hopes the customs officers at Port Said will be in a good mood tomorrow.

Neda Boin (22), Sierd van der Bij (23) and Christiaan Triebert (21) are the lucky Dutch trio who began on 1 October a three-month-long hitchhiking trip from Groningen in the Netherlands to Cape Town, South Africa. They are part of the Thumbs Up Africa project, which aims at raising global awareness about sustainability.

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