It's easy to be aloof about passport stamps and countries visited...until the competitive spirit comes out. Then a whirlwind trip through Africa takes on a new meaning.
I wish I had a good reason for being here. After all, for centuries, this was a place as legendary as dragons with painted toenails, a spot where maybe the streets weren't paved in gold, but the people wore so much of it they couldn't move but only glint in the afternoon heat.
I wish my motives for coming to this corner of the earth were noble, like Alexander Gordon Laing, who made it here for the glory of England, and then was promptly escorted 30 miles into the desert, strangled, and decapitated. Or Henrich Barth, who struggled in disguise for the glory of Germany, and when his cover was blown, fled in the night, leaving no trace but his camel tracks. Or Mungo Park, who was trying to get through "the white man's grave" and find a river that flows just a few desert miles from where the airport is now.
Even my friends who've been here bought into the suffering: days on broken transport, hitchhiking, gasping in the sand haze of the harmattan.
Why? Because some places simply have magic names, names that are alone reason enough to go: Zanzibar, Kathmandu, Bora Bora.
And this one.
I wish I had a noble reason for being here. I wish I'd earned this.
But I flew here in a private jet.
And the only reason I have for coming is because I want to beat my friend Marie at Strip Passport.
Welcome to Timbuktu.
How to Play Strip Passport, Part 1
You may use all your old passports, not just the current one.
Players take turns choosing a country, showing the visa or entry/stamp.
Those without a stamp from that country must remove one article of clothing.
Countries that no longer exist (e.g., Biafra, East Germany, the Soviet Union) are wildcards. Players presenting a wildcard have two options: a) making those who can't match take off two items of clothing; or b) putting one piece back on themselves.
TOMBOUCTOU MALI 667940E0
How I got to Timbuktu: Flew to London, jammed in coach class, praying the iPod battery would hold out longer than the screaming children all around me––hey, parents, God invented Benadryl for a reason. Bus, train, subway. Crowds, noise. God and Benadryl save the Queen, somebody has to. Asses to elbows through Picadilly.
And then the world turned over and stretched.
I'm not allowed to tell you who else was on the private jet. Names you would recognize, names you wouldn't. People who can afford to travel around the world without first going through security.
I will get kicked off the plane in Zambia, the trip's last Africa stop; those who are not travel writers covering stories with limited geography, but are instead paying guests, will continue on to the Maldives, India, Cambodia, and other points that annoy me because I'm not going.
They probably won't miss me. Will probably just, perhaps over a dinner somewhere outside Yangoon, say, "Hey, what happened to that freak with the tattoo on his hand?"
But before that happens, while vendors with grills and unrecognizable chunks of meat set up on every street corner to add to the haze, it's time for Timbuktu.
Which I won't tell you about.
You'll be happier this way, trust me. Leave it in the realm of imagination. Leave it behind the scrim of the harmattan, before you realize that being in Timbuktu is like watching a Keanu Reeves movie sober.
But don't worry. We've got plenty of other things to talk about.
How to Play Strip Passport, Part 2
The following may be assessed a bonus:
Countries that have existed for less than one year.
Countries in both old and new configurations. For example, a Hong Kong stamp from both before and after the Chinese takeover, or stamps not only from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but also Czechoslovakia.
A residence stamp, plus 10 exit and entry stamps from the same country, qualifies for a free pass in the round of your choice.
GHANA IMMIGRATION OFFICE FEB 23 2008 KOTOKA INT'L AIRPORT
Because we are on a private jet tour, and because everybody but me paid a fortune to be here, we have killer access.
Peacocks scream in the palace yard, and we're outnumbered by waiters with endless supplies of drinks.
Then the king comes out.
Not the king of Ghana. Ghana is a highly progressive nation, with democracy rocked and rolled to the point where their supreme court has never once handed an election to the son of the guy who put them on the supreme court to begin with.
No, this is the king of the Ashantis. You've seen his ancestors in a few hundred movies, usually getting killed in the last reel so that Africa can be safe for Truth, Justice, and Undercooked British Foods. A genuine king from a lineage that stretches back to a time when my own ancestors were painting themselves blue and running around Scotland wondering why they thought wearing skirts was a good idea despite it being bloody cold out.
Here's my problem, though: not until the king goes back inside do I realize it was the king at all.
Although the king bling really should have tipped me off.
But can I now say I've met the king of the Ashantis, even though I had no clue he was the king of the Ashantis?
We get an escort to the coffin shops, with a cop on motorcycle teetering off the bike to kick cars out of our way. Ghana is rightly famous for its coffins, and is maybe the only country in the world where somebody who wants to be buried in a giant Coke bottle can simply walk into a shop and pick out one that fits. Or a shoe, an onion, a big white car, a bright red pepper.
The airplane coffin looks way more comfortable than flying coach.
And later, on our extremely comfy private jet, I find out I'm the only one who went the fifty yards from the hotel to the beach last night.
How could I not? How often does one get a chance to say, "I stood in the Bight of Benin," and feel its surprisingly cold water wash around their feet? Isn't that even more rare than meeting kings? Because, truth be told, the Ashanti guy was my third.
Or would have been, if I'd realized that's who he was.
See, here's the thing: everybody plays "who's been to the most countries" like dogs sniffing each other's butts, looking for status. But sooner or later, you hit the snob who doesn't count at all, or the snob who counts everything, who follows the rules of that group who thinks Alaska and Hawaii each should be considered countries. I once spent two weeks in Greenland with one of those guys; he kept checking his list, like Santa on a cocaine bender, just in case one of the countries he was missing showed up on the horizon.
Can you say you've been to Ghana if you haven't felt the waves? Does depth matter at all, or is skimming the surface really enough?
How another person travels makes no more sense than who they fall in love with.
How to Play Strip Passport, Part 3, or Why I Have to Beat Marie (Interlude)
I first thought up Strip Passport maybe ten years ago. I would have lost badly then. Now, I'm probably okay.
Except against Marie.
"It's not about sexy," she says, when I joke that neither of us actually wants to see the other naked. "It's about humiliation." A pause. "Of course, either way, I win."
She's getting back at me for the postcard I sent her from South Georgia Island, where I wrote nothing on the back except "I've been here and you haven't."
But when I tell her I'm headed to parts of West Africa she's never seen, suggest that she will soon be shivering and fumbling desperately through the pages of her passports, all I get back is this email:
"In your dreams. US, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China/Hong Kong, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, UK/Scotland, Morocco, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal. Oh, wait, plus Mongolia, Costa Rica, Netherlands, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Syria, UAE, and Cambodia. And Taiwan. What else am I forgetting?"
But I know the truth. I know she only went to Bahrain to buy bacon.
I explain all this to my photographer, who does nothing but bring up more problems. "What about countries you didn't get stamped?" he asks. "I've crossed into Burma twice with the KLNA, Iraq with the PUK, Bosnia with the UN, Kosovo accidentally on my own, and Serbia with the help of drunken paramilitaries."
Even if you used to be a war photographer, exactly how do you end up saying, "Oops, I seem to be in Kosovo"?
Still, we're not giving any breaks to an EU friend just because nobody stamps her passport (besides, her I really would like to see naked), so going across a border as a hostage doesn't get you anywhere, either.
Strip passport is the great leveler. No matter how you travel, plain and simple. If you ain't got the stamp, you're about to get nekkid.
Continue to page 2 of this article
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