Reading: When the Going was Good by Evelyn Waugh

One does not travel, any more than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one’s life. For myself, and many better than I, there is a fascination in distant and barbarous places, and particularly in the borderlands of conflicting cultures and states of development, where ideas, uprooted from their traditions, become oddly changed in transplantation.
--Evelyn Waugh A Journey to Brazil in 1932

Rare is that generation which, easing through middle age, does not believe that in their youth they went to the best parties, saw the most unspoiled places, and had the most vivid experiences. The gentle one-upmanship of travel chat is irresistible. “Well, I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I went to… (Guatemala, Tehran, Zimbabwe, etc.) back in… (the days before you were old enough to have a passport) it was… (totally unspoiled, exotic and delightful, without a single other soul on the entire beach, etc.).”

Evelyn Waugh, perhaps more than most, may have been justified in naming his selected travel writings When the Going was Good. For one thing, he put the collection together at the end of World War II, when the world as he had known it was truly in disarray. The great European powers had proved themselves to be as destructive and violent as any of the savage backwaters he had visited a decade or more earlier. The war trashed any lingering notions of the genteel colonialism Waugh so enjoyed skewering in his novels. Whereas the first war had prompted a redistribution of colonies, as if Africa’s countries were nothing more than playing cards to be shuffled and redealt by the great powers, the second war led directly towards independence and the dissolution of the colonial enterprise as such. “Never again, I suppose,” writes Waugh in his introduction, “shall we land on foreign soil with letter of credit and passport (itself the first faint shadow of the great cloud that envelops us) and feel the world wide open before us.” Waugh fails to anticipate the magic of the ATM. But, more chillingly, he declines to travel in a declining postwar world populated by “the great army of men and women without papers, without official existence, the refugees and deserters, who drift everywhere today between the barbed wire.” Their numbers have only grown since.

In part, of course, what Waugh means is that in the early 1930s, when he made his most impressive voyages, it was possible to go far, and to find comfortable lodging and gin and tonics across much of Africa, just by dropping the names of the right London socialites. But the modern traveler, armed with a decent list of facebook friends working for NGOs, would manage just as well to find today cold beer and a guest bedroom in the poshest neighborhoods of any of the African capitals. Waugh sadly anticipates a war-torn post-colonial era in which nobody sensible would leap into a truck in Khartoum and hitchhike south through the Congo and Zimbabwe, much less manage such a journey by rail as was more or less possible in his era.

The going may have been good, but it wasn’t easy, especially once Waugh really got off the beaten track, taking paddle steamers west across Lake Tanganyika towards the Congo, or chafing in the saddle along the Brazilian -- Guyanese border. These are still some of the most remote and difficult bits of the tropics to travel. Waugh goes to Ethiopia to report on the coronation of Haile Selassie, steams to Zanzibar and tries to cross Africa from east to west, by train and aeroplane; he goes back to Ethiopia to report on the war; he goes to Guyana for no good reason and promptly heads inland into the impenetrable jungle, to the horror of the noble people of Georgetown. (They say to him exactly what the residents of that flat and steaming city still say today, that the only thing possibly worth visiting that way is the Kaiteur waterfall; so many people suggest it to him that he resolves under no circumstances to go there). These are the journeys that became some of his most caustic, darkly hilarious novels. Certainly Black Mischief and Scoop derive directly from the African chapters in his travels.

I prefer Waugh’s novels to his travel writing, although his style is always delicious. The tales of his travels are diaristic, but rarely are they personally revelatory. What is best about them are the glimpses they give of his interests. Ultimately, he cares little for the landscapes, flora and fauna others might seek in visiting such remote places. His fascination is the universality of the baser human instincts, the shortcomings of mankind, which are brought out into such vivid relief by life in the more savage corners of the globe. Venality, false modesty, banality, gullibility and opportunism are the game he goes hunting for on his myriad safaris. In the most backward places such qualities even seem to be nurtured and gleefully exhibited. In his fiction he shot these animals, skinned them, and hung them on the wall for us to laugh at.

Waugh is the chronicler of the crumbling alcoholic latter days of colonialism, the implementation of grandiose schemes and pointless bureaucracies, of the decline of enthusiastically installed, pompously inaugurated but promptly abandoned, unmaintained and unlamented services. Of good intentions turning to fetid rot in the tropical heat while the bad, or just the mediocre, flourish like kudzu vines. After arduous days crossing the Guyanese jungle, he arrives in the northern Brazilian city of Boa Vista, where “the remains of an overhead electric cable hung loose from a row of crazy posts, or lay in coils and heaps about the gutter.” We need not ask if it works still.

In When the Going was Good a favorite device of travel writing is given a thoroughly Wavian treatment (to use the preferred adjective coined by one of his critics). I’m not certain that Waugh is its innovator, but many a writer since has used it, wittingly or unwittingly, including myself. It works like this: first the author is trapped in some God-forsaken backwater, or finds himself trudging through a disheartening landscape (Waugh: “we came into bush country, featureless and dismal”…. “the scenery was utterly dreary, flat papyrus swamps on either side broken by rare belts of palm”…. “I was to see plenty of this river later on and grow to hate it.”) Next, one’s guides, porters and fellow travelers paint a picture of a veritable Shangri-La, shimmering on the horizon. The distant destination is imagined as a kind of paradise, an outpost of civilization and relief. The very thought of it is enough to push one forward. (“Boa Vista had come to assume greater and greater importance to me.” “Mr. Daguar had extolled its modernity and luxury – electric light, cafés, fine buildings, women, politics, murders.” “I had looked forward to the soft living of Boa Vista….”). Finally one arrives in this paradigm of modernity where, of course, the hopes and dreams, of cappuccino and cotton sheets alike, are dashed. Waugh’s arrival in Boa Vista makes for a bit of a long quote, but it is such a worthy classic of the genre that I bring it to you in its entirety:

Already, in the few hours of my sojourn there, the Boa Vista of my imagination had come to grief. Gone; engulfed in an earthquake, uprooted by a tornado and tossed sky-high like chaff in the wind, scorched up with brimstone like Gomorrah, toppled over with trumpets like Jericho, ploughed like Carthage, bought, demolished and transported brick by brick to another continent as though it had taken the fancy of Mr. Hearst; tall Troy was down. When I set out on a stroll of exploration, I no longer expected the city I had had in mind during the thirsty days of approach – the shady boulevards; kiosks for flowers and cigars and illustrated papers; the hotels and the cafés; the baroque church built by seventeenth-century missionaries; the bastions of the old fort; the bandstand in the square, standing amidst fountains and flowering shrubs; the soft, slightly swaggering citizens, some uniformed and spurred, others with Southern elegance twirling little canes, bowing from the waist and raising boater hats, flicking with white gloves indiscernible particles of dust from their white linen spats; dark beauties languorous on balconies or glancing over fans at the café tables. All that extravagant and highly improbable expectation had been obliterated like a sand castle beneath the encroaching tide.
Closer investigation did nothing to restore it.”

The going may have been good, but can it really have been better? As Waugh consistently demonstrated, any journey is what you make of it, no matter when you set out.


On Safari

An Archetypal Acacia

I don’t know how my fellow sound recordists feel about it, but for me our chosen profession is exciting not in and of itself, but because it leads to innumerable fabulous adventures. No sooner had we disembarked from two weeks on a factory ship in the Indian Ocean, than cameraman and bunkmate Axel Baumann and I found ourselves driving north across the bush. We went from Mombasa to Nairobi, and then beyond, towards the Ethiopian border, to Samburu, a Kenyan national reserve. Here we were to film in the days ahead. For now, blissful time off: the vagaries of scheduling the boat journey had left us with a full forty-eight hours to do nothing but wait for our producer, look at wildlife, and eat from the abundant buffet at our lodge.

The baboons shall inherit the earth

Samburu is a deservedly famous safari destination, and was my first taste of what spotting game is like in a touristed spot. Several upscale lodges and tented camps are dotted along the winding river at its heart. After dawn coffee and biscuits the mini-buses and pop-top land cruisers depart at 6:30 AM sharp in order to have two and half hours of drive time and make it back for breakfast. Dirt tracks wind through riverine forest, acacia scrub and savannah. Nobody is without a camera, and the drivers keep in frequent contact with one another. providing alerts as to sighting opportunities of the so-called “big five,” the largest and most desirable animals. The lesser creatures which interest me just as much, like the tiny Pygmy Falcon or a gaggle of the exquisite Vulturine Guineafowl (2887) don’t make it on the radio, let alone the drabber songbirds like Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow Weaver, which looks like a tidy overgrown House Sparrow but is rather a local specialty. A healthy group of giraffe or a family of elephant, however, can quickly find itself surrounded by its own gaggle of minivans. In the open bush country the vehicles are visible for miles, and the gathering of cars attract more of their own kind, including private drivers out of the radio loop who drive hastily up, fearful that they might be missing something. There are moments when the whole exercise becomes a rather amusing demonstration that the herd instinct is alive and well in the human species.

The very odd and beautiful Vulturine Guineafowl

But the skies and spaces are huge, and I’m not complaining. The experience remains utterly sublime, filled with breath-taking episodes. Furthermore, without the significant dollars spent by wildlife spotters to justify conservation efforts, this majestic place would likely disappear.

The drab yet exciting Donaldson-Smith's Sparrow Weaver, preparing to weave

I will now describe the most sublime of our many sublime Samburu moments, and don’t read this if you are the sort who likes their travel narratives free of gloating. If you only enjoy stories that offer schadenfreude, recounting the author’s myriad struggles and moments of comic suffering, you had best stop reading right now (and perhaps buy my book instead). The tale I am about to tell is not for those easily made jealous.

Je suis le Giraffe

After a spectacular day of being driven about in the African bush with our heads thrust out the top of a minivan, we headed back toward the lodge across the flat, acacia-dotted floodplain. From luxurious proximity we had watched Elephants, Buffalo, countless Giraffe, hordes of baboons, Grevy’s Zebra and Grant’s Gazelle. Ornithologically, too, it had been a splendid day, filled with such avian delights as Tawny Eagle, White-headed Mousebird, Rufous Chatterer (2893), and Buff-crested Bustard. We were close to the lodge, and to celebrating the day over a cold bottle of Tusker.

The stripes of the Grevy's Zebra are the most elegant of all

The setting sun dappled the stands of acacias with leopard-spot shadows as the weaver-birds flew back to their clusters of intricate hanging nests. Scanning for the last birds of the day in the passing treetops, I spied an elongated pale stretched shape, an anomalous blob near the top of one of those archetypal slope-roofed acacias, the stuff of setting sun picture postcards of the African landscape. “St-st-stuh-stop….” I whispered urgently for perhaps the fiftieth time that day. But I added one new and important word: Leopard! Our driver squeezed down on the brakes. Little following turrets of dust wafted past the side mirrors. “Shhhhh,” I said. “Right there, very close. Very, very close. In the nearest tree. Shhhhh. Back up, about twenty-five feet.” He did, and there it was, perhaps twenty yards away, stretched out along the horizontal upper portion of an acacia trunk, one of two adjoining trees, with nothing behind but low, dense, marshy bush. Creamy white, daubed with its own personal camouflage and dappled with the orange and shadows of the setting sun, the muscular beast turned its languid lemony eye on us, yawned, and relaxed back onto its branch. It was difficult to breathe, faced with such stunning views of this most difficult of large wild cats. “You guys are so very lucky,” whispered John Chavanga, our fixer, from the front seat. “Oh, my.” In the binoculars I could appreciate every spot, every rippling muscle. I soaked in the abundant length of the cat’s whiskers. Beside me, I knew, Axel was doing the same through a 300mm lens.

Minutes went by. “It’s amazing it is still there, putting on a show for you,” said Frances, our guide and driver. “Showing you everything. I have rarely seen one stay for so long. Soon he will go.” And indeed, the cat began to stir, cricking its neck and gently placing a paw further down the trunk, as if testing its exit. Without haste or urgency it walked and jumped its way down to the ground, then walked directly into the enveloping bush behind. We were quivering with excitement, exulting, and hi-fiving over this splendid sighting. The show was over, what a finale to a perfect day!

"Alright, if you nuisances insist on parking there, I'm out of here!"

I’m not sure whether Frances started the car again immediately, or if we sat there luxuriating in silence for a few more moments, or even whether I more heard or saw what happened next, but from behind the two trees there came a violent thrashing of the brush, a rippling movement. I’m now certain I heard it, as well, a rowdy crashing through the bushes. The leopard came streaking back out of the bush and bolted up the neighboring tree in perhaps a fiftieth of the time it had taken to make its languid descent a few moments earlier. Only just behind it followed a charging lioness. She cruised into the clearing, stopping short at the foot of the tree. The leopard looked down in panic. The lion looked up, evaluated. The trunk was narrow, the new cat much heavier than the fugitive. She paced, below, the leopard never letting her out of sight as he turned on his branch. Axel switched lenses. The lioness gave it up as a bad job and strolled back into the bush. Nonetheless the leopard continued to twitch with paranoia; it was no longer worried about us, mere humans in a land cruiser. Frances radioed. Everyone had already gone in, except for one microbus from the Serena Lodge. Eventually, it drove up. We had spent so long enjoying the two-act spectacle that by the time two very grateful ladies arrived and we exchanged whispered greetings, we had had our fill, and we left them alone to enjoy for themselves the leopard, still sitting nervous in his roost.

Simba! (looking resentfully up at the toothsome snack she just missed out on)

All photographs by the illustrious Axel Baumann


Plus ça change...

Even after the most pleasant sea voyage there is a delicious anticipation associated with finally arriving in port. Awakening on the morning of our fourteenth day on the Indian Ocean, no land was in sight, but by lunchtime a plump, dark streak had appeared on the horizon, off the starboard bow. Land ho! A few hours later, in front of a city view of whitewashed cement and iron railings, we were in amongst the tankers lazing outside Mombasa, waiting for the port pilots to arrive and steer them in. Much of the crew came out then, to stand at the rails imagining the hidden delights of the city drifting before them. There was a palpable, mounting sense of anticipation as the ship was made fast to the quay. Rather than go out for the first night's carousing, however, we spent one last night on a ship almost devoid of other people, packing up our ten suitcases of film and sound equipment. Mombasa could wait until the next morning, we thought. It was a decision later to be regretted.

Let me in, please! The port of Mombasa

We were to be picked up shipside at eight in the morning, our way through customs eased by professionals who had driven down specially from Nairobi. Eagerly, we prepared the valises. At 8:02 the first telephone call. "Rather a bit more bureaucracy than we're used to up at the airport," said our fixer. His voice was barely intelligible, a problem I blamed on the absurdly inexpensive cell phone I had purchased in Dar es Salaam, but I gathered that we should wait. Not that we had much choice. For a time, John called every twenty minutes to give an update. Then, every ninety minutes or so. Then only in response to my calling and immediately hanging up, a practice known in East Africa as "beeping." Done when one has almost no units left on their phone, it also indicates a sort of a financial pecking order. To be beeped is to be assumed to be more wealthy than the beeper. I was stuck on the ship without units, beeping, asserting my impotence. We sat with the mammoth pile of luggage inside the sweltering main deck, illuminated by endless rows of yellow neon tubes, and packed with industrial equipment. Instead of the gabble of the markets of Mombasa the soundtrack was an endless drone of engines and compressors, and a persistent rushing whoosh of air issuing from distant vents, loud but ineffective against the equatorial heat. It was like Waiting for Godot staged inside a factory. We had given up our quarters and brought the luggage down to show it to yet another customs-man; minutes later, going back to the cabin just to be quite certain nothing had been forgotten, I found the lights dim, an unknown backpack on the desk, and a man sleeping in what had been my bed. The ship was efficient in getting their fresh crew on board, whether or not Kenya was willing to admit the old.

I sat on the cases, sweating and reading Evelyn Waugh. When the Going was Good is his late 1940s collection of travel writing culled from three books he wrote fifteen or twenty years earlier. In it he recounts the visit to Ethiopia that became Black Mischief, and his subsequent travels south, to the very waters we had been plying. It was a wonderful instance of reading in the place, a notion I've written about here before. How much sweeter it is to peruse Shackleton while in Antarctica, or Garcia-Marquez on a shady patio in Cartagena!

This Turkish battleship, off to search for pirates, was soon replaced by a returning German one, loaded with suspected Somali pirates. I'm glad to finally be on land!

The moist, hot hours ticked by. More customs gentlemen visited, proposing that the contents of our suitcases must be worth far more than the number someone had written on the bottom of the list they held in their hands. We hemmed, they hawed. They went away, promising to return "in an hour or so." Reading Waugh helped ease the pain of this purgatory between sea and land, but could not erase it altogether. I read that he visited Zanzibar and found it dull. He had plans to overland it to the west coast, to Congo-Brazzaville, or Cote D'Ivoire. He therefore sailed to Dar es Salaam, and then north up the coast to Kenya, to the city I longed to step off the ship and into. He dismissed it in a single sentence: "On the last day of the year we arrived at Mombasa, where my whole time was occupied with the immigration officers."