South of Ceuta Backstory

February 1, 2012

I met Lee in Cambodia while working at a legal internship in Cambodia in the summer of 2004, at a legal aid organization that – among other missions – aids poor and vulnerable Cambodians in their constant struggle against the abuses of the entrenched elite. By that time, we both shared a passion for backpacking and volunteer work, and each were reasonably seasoned global travelers.

The following year, Lee and I each worked as interns at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal.  Following the internship, we traveled through West Africa, including Ghana, Senegal, and Mali.  It was in the latter country that we began to realize both the rewards and limitations of backpacking through Africa using public transport, the means by which we had used for essentially all previous global travel.  Mali at once featured the rewards of tribal Dogon Country with its breathtaking Bandiagara Escarpment; hippos, bustling market towns, and otherworldly scenery in the Niger River; hidden adventures in the Sahel; and amazing mud brick architecture … but also an unplanned night on a bus with jagged metal seats, an entire day waiting for departure at an oppressively boring outdoor bus depot, unscrupulous and abrasive public transport operators, and countless other obstacles.

At some point in Mali, we began to discuss an eventual pan-African road trip with our own vehicle, at the time contemplating a ring around the coast of Africa – maybe starting in Morocco and working clockwise around the continent back to Morocco.   For the years following that trip, whenever we spoke, the idea of a Pan-African adventure would come up.  As we began our respective law careers such a notion often seemed like a pipe dream, but we never gave up on the idea, knowing that if done right it could be an epic experience.

Through a mutual friend, Dan Martin, they met Nate, who would become the third member of the current road trip.  Nate introduced the idea of the Budapest to Bamako rally to us, and once he heard of the idea of extending that trip by way of the Pan-African journey that we envisioned, the three of us became interested in combining the two.  Nate had originally been looking for someone with whom to do the rally in January 2011, but in December 2010 we all met in his Brooklyn apartment, at which time we discussed the broad stokes of a journey for which the 2012 rally would be the opening act.

Throughout 2011, we continued to discuss the trip, with increasing frequency and detail as the year passed by.  Discussions focused on the vehicle, supplies, route, and how the group would incorporate an association with a charity.  Preparation for the trip took many twists and turns, and we’ve each given up a lot to be here – but now 2012 is here, and we are on the road in Africa.

We decided to call our trip Voyages Verts — “Green Travels” in French — since we would be traveling to so many French-speaking countries.   We use this name for three reasons:  Originally, we had planned to run our Land Cruiser (“the Cruiser”) on vegetable and palm oil, and therefore make it more environmentally sound.  We tried pretty hard to do it, but came up short for now.   But we also use Voyages Verts because in French it means “travel to the green countryside”, and because, well, the Cruiser is green.

Along with Lee and Nate, I helped build and continue to contribute to the Voyages Verts blog.  This is a forum that speaks for all three of us.  Though we are good friends, there are times when our viewpoints diverge and when a post or an idea that one of us wishes to create does not necessarily speak for the group.  I created South of Ceuta as a way to record my own observations and insights about our African journey without stepping on anyone else’s toes.

I have reproduced here the Voyages Verts content created up until now so that readers may refer to earlier posts without having to switch sites.  Readers may therefore notice an abrupt shift from a third person narrative to the first person.  Oh well.  From this point forward, the content between the two blogs will diverge somewhat, but I think you’ll enjoy both of them.

So, why did I call the blog South of Ceuta?  For that matter, what or where is Ceuta?  I had no clue until literally a couple of hours before I went.  It’s a small, well-developed Spanish enclave city on the African continent, wholly enveloped within Moroccan territory.  Ceuta (pronounced “say Utah”) was where we landed after having hurriedly jumped aboard a ferry in Algeciras, Spain that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar onto the African continent.

We didn’t do a whole lot in Ceuta, just some “trip chores” like making one last European grocery store run, filling up with diesel and water, and getting our VAT form stamped by the coolest customs agent ever.  But just after exiting Ceuta into Morocco, I recall the excitement related to having all of Africa in front of us, and the challenges that lay ahead.  Though the rally originated in Europe, and before that there were flights from Los Angeles (for me) and for each of us from New York to Europe, the trip is really all about Africa.  Getting to and through Ceuta, especially after some brutal days of streaking across Europe to catch the rally, was a milestone.

The blog name is also relevant to the both the geography of Africa and the spontaneous nature of our trip.  Ceuta is located in the Northwest corner of Africa.  For reasons of current political instability and time, we’re not traveling in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt) other than the few days we spent in Morocco during the rally, so we won’t go east of Ceuta.  If you go very far west of Ceuta, you arrive at the Atlantic Ocean, and since we decided against equipping the Cruiser with a watercraft we will not be traveling by sea for now.  And we’re not about to turn around and go back to Europe anytime soon – at least I’m not.  So the only direction from Ceuta was south.

We’ve talked about ending in South Africa, and generally sticking to the West Coast as we make our way down.  So maybe it could be something like “Capetown or Bust” or “Down Africa’s Wild West Coast” (hmmm, maybe I’ll use that line somewhere). But the truth is we don’t know where we’ll end up, or what route we’ll take.  What we do know with reasonable certainty that the entire African portion of our adventure will be …  (corny title insertion alert) … south of Ceuta.

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