The night I slept outside the worst toilets in Luanda

'There are places I stay where mice eat the photos and the smallest treasure is vulnerable to theft'

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Only a phone that is looking for trouble will wake you at two in the morning. I've had hundreds of those calls down the years. Mostly it has been a news desk saying something terrible has happened and will I get there as fast as I can. Occasionally it is some drunk ringing a wrong number, and once or twice it has been the voice of some aggrieved viewer or listener who wants to threaten me with violence. But the phone that rang at 2am in Beirut was none of these. It was a morning alarm call and I had a flight to catch.

Only a phone that is looking for trouble will wake you at two in the morning. I've had hundreds of those calls down the years. Mostly it has been a news desk saying something terrible has happened and will I get there as fast as I can. Occasionally it is some drunk ringing a wrong number, and once or twice it has been the voice of some aggrieved viewer or listener who wants to threaten me with violence. But the phone that rang at 2am in Beirut was none of these. It was a morning alarm call and I had a flight to catch.

In the few seconds after the Dalek-voiced operator wrenched me from slumber, I used curses summoned from the ancient memory of the Celtic peoples. And then I asked a couple of simple questions: where am I and what on earth am I doing getting up at two in the morning?

I love Beirut, but at that hour of the morning it is a city of ghosts. The road to the airport is filled with shadows, a road along which invading armies have rampaged in triumph and retreated in defeat; it runs parallel to the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla where Ariel Sharon's army stood idly by in the face of a massacre; it curls around the edge of the suburbs where hostages like Brian Keenan and John McCarthy and Terry Anderson endured terrible years of captivity. The new city, which struggles so hard to obliterate the memory of war, is lost in the pre-dawn emptiness.

We had the imminent arrival of the Arab leaders to thank for the unearthly hour of our departure. At 9am the airport was being shutdown for security reasons. Nothing would move for the next two days.

So we faced the delights of a 5am flight to Athens with a connection to Istanbul and after that another to Ankara. And then two days in Ankara followed by another flight to Istanbul; and four days in Istanbul before a flight to the Russian border for two days; and then a flight back to Istanbul before catching a flight to New York; and then from New York to Washington for three days before flying back to London. If it feels tiring to read that itinerary, try to imagine what it's like to travel.

The matter is complicated by an increasing fear of flying on my part. Where has this come from after a lifetime of jumping on and off planes? I think of the rustbuckets, I have travelled in and the mad pilots to whom I've entrusted my security, yet now even the newest jet and most sober-looking crew cannot cure me of my nerves. After scorning the superstitious habits of friends, I find myself carrying little charms: rosary beads given to me by my grandmother, a small piece of driftwood washed up on the beach near my home in Ireland.

And then there is the tyranny of hotel life. Even the nicest hotel feels a little like a prison after a while. You try to make it like home, sticking photographs of those you love on the bathroom mirror, laying out your few books and draping your clothes everywhere. For a few days I try to turn that indifferent space into my own small republic. Not untidiness, but a claim on territory.

It isn't always possible. There are places I stay where the mice might eat the photographs or the smallest treasure is vulnerable to theft. In the deep badlands of Colombia I lost a collection of Robert Lowell's poems to a light-fingered chambermaid. I do, however, wish her well and hope that Lowell has brought her fortune, in one way or another.

That particular hotel was the most appalling dosshouse. I lay in pools of sweat while squadrons of mosquitoes ravaged my body. It wasn't as bad as the night I slept outside the toilets in Luanda. I wasn't drunk and I wasn't in prison. Together with a band of colleagues, I was trying to fly to the Congo in a small, chartered plane. There was a coup and we were forced to wait in the airport at Luanda while the pilots figured out a safe way into Congo. The only space left to lie down was outside the toilets. My God, what an odoriferous horror. It smelt as if the bowels of the continent had been emptied into that tiny corner of Angola.

Through exhaustion or asphyxiation I fell into a coma. On being woken two hours later I discovered that every exposed inch of my body was covered in angry red bites. Journalists being what they are, my colleagues screamed with laughter at this deformity. While I am on the subject of Angola and bowels, I must point up another hazard of long-term travelling. It turns your stomach into a hothouse for malign bacteria.

I've had the trots in some of the best hotels in the world... and the worst. But for sheer novelty value (not mine but my companions) it would be hard to top the affair of the minister, the trots and the toilet paper.

I was interviewing the Angolan Minister of Mines in his plush office in central Luanda. My producer, Noah Richler, scion of the famous Canadian literary family, was busy monitoring the record level when I was overcome by an urgent need to evacuate. The hapless Minister of Mines saw the alarm in my face and pointed to his private toilet.

I galloped. And then galloped some more. God knows what the poor Minister thought of the noises emerging from his toilet. Relieved at last, I looked around for toilet paper. There was none. I switched on the tap next to toilet but there was no water. Weakly I called out to Noah for paper. A few seconds later several sheets of the BBC's finest headed paper were shoved under the door. After that I knew what it was to rank among the least of the earth, a fit companion for slugs and cockroaches.

For all of that I am still deeply in love with travel. I still say prayers of thanks for the kind uncle who guided me into my first journalistic job. "The world is your oyster boy," he said. Since then I've guzzled everything from oysters to stewed snake in a world that has been terrifying, traumatising, intoxicating, beautiful – a world that, for all its horrors, has been unendingly kind and welcome to me.

On this trip in the Middle East, for example, I have been plied with syrupy coffees and feasts that would make the most gluttonous Pasha groan. More than that I have found my capacity for wonder endlessly challenged. In the Bekaa valley this week, I listened to a 100-year-old woman sing a song in a dialect that will most likely vanish with her death. She had been exiled from her homeland nearly a century before, and her song was of people and places swept away by the violent force of history. Next week I will visit Ellis Island with another aged emigrant, and who knows what travels lie waiting down the years.

But now that my child is of an age where he notices my absence, I have cut down on travelling. The long periods of absence are simply not feasible. They are too lonely and destructive for all concerned. Home is always the sweetest destination.

And where long periods of travel are necessary I try to include my family as much as possible. So we raid the bank account and meet in strange and wonderful places. My wife and son are about to come to Istanbul where we will explore the old city and go to Easter Sunday mass in a Byzantine church. How long can I stay travelling? As long as there is breath in this body.

 

The writer is a BBC Special

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