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The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa

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Neil Peart’s travel memoir of thoughts, observations, and experiences as he cycles through West Africa reveals the subtle, yet powerful writing style that has made him one of rock’s greatest lyricists. As he describes his extraordinary journey and his experiences — from the pains of dysentery, to a confrontation with an armed soldier, to navigating dirt roads off the beaten path — he reveals his own emotional landscape, and along the way, the different “masks” that he discovers he wears.
“Cycling is a good way to travel anywhere, but especially in Africa. You are independent and mobile, and yet travel at people speed — fast enough to travel on to another town in the cooler morning hours, but slow enough to meet people: the old farmer at the roadside who raises his hand and says, ‘You are welcome,’ the tireless women who offer a smile to a passing cyclist, the children whose laughter transcends the humblest home.”

ISBN-13: 9781550226676

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: ECW Press

Publication Date: 09-28-2004

Pages: 298

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x (d)

Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist of the legendary rock band Rush and the author of Ghost Rider, Traveling Music, Roadshow, Far and Away, Far and Near, Far and Wide, and, with Kevin J. Anderson, Clockwork Angels and Clockwork Lives.

Read an Excerpt

The Masked Rider

Cycling in West Africa

By Neil Peart


Copyright © 2004 Neil Peart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-713-7



The first traveler's tale of Cameroon reaches us from the fifth century B.C., when the Phoenician explorer Hanno led an expedition around the west coast of Africa. His fleet of sixty ships reached present-day Senegal, and Hanno attempted to land there, but was soon driven back by the local warriors. He sailed on past forested mountains and wide rivers, afraid to go ashore because of the hippopotamuses and crocodiles (it would appear Hanno wasn't the most stalwart of explorers). He came upon an island which looked safe at first, but when he tried to land he was frightened off again, this time by "fires and strange music." And once more he ran away, stating,

Sailing quickly away thence, we passed by a country burning with fires and perfumes and streams of fire supplied then fell into the sea. The country was impassable on account of the great heat. We sailed quickly thence being much terrified and passing on for four days we discovered at night a country full of fire. In the middle was a lofty fire which seemed to touch the stars.

Next morning, just before Hanno "sailed quickly away" again, this time for home, he saw a mountain of fire which he named Theon Ochema: the Chariot of the Gods. Being "much terrified," Hanno was no doubt given to exaggeration, but Mount Cameroon, the only live volcano in West Africa, is said to be that great mountain of fire which kept the tourists out of Cameroon for another two thousand years.

Then, in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama cruised by and dropped anchor in the Wouri River. He stood at the rail and admired the small crustaceans in the water, and decided to name the river after them: Rio-des-Cameroes, "River of Prawns." Thus the Portuguese called their "discovery" Cameroes, until 1887 when the Germans claimed the land and called it Kamerun. After World War I it was taken from Germany and divided between the French, who called it Cameroun, and the English, who called it The Cameroons. What the people who lived there called it is not recorded, but no doubt it had nothing to do with small crustaceans.

* * *

By the time I got to Cameroon, in November 1988, the country was once again in the hands of the people who lived there. I saw no mountain of fire, and I saw no prawns, but my first impression of Cameroon was not unlike Hanno's: heat and darkness and fires, a strange inferno which did seem to suggest "sailing quickly away thence." The air was heavy, even at sunset, and the exertion of assembling my bicycle outside the airport left me dripping. Among a confusion of upended frames, wheels, bike-bags, and tools, a crowd of boys gathered around to watch me and a few other North Americans struggle with our handlebar stems and seat posts. I kept an uneasy watch on my possessions, and thought about cycling around Cameroon for a month in that kind of heat. A month can be a long time.

We pedaled away from the airport into the sudden equatorial night, following the broken shoulder of the highway into the city. A few dim streetlamps lit the skeletons of abandoned cars and uneven rows of gray plank and cinder-block houses. Corrugated-metal roofs gleamed among the looming, ivy-hung trees. Scattered oil-drum fires flickered on dark faces, flashing eyes, and teeth bared in demonic laughter that was drowned by the music which raged out from everywhere. Indecipherable wailing chants and pulsing rhythms chugged out of straining loudspeakers as I tried to find a path through the crowds. People turned to stare, evidently surprised to see a white man in a funny hat riding a bicycle.

One of the oil-drum fires lighted a member of our group at the roadside, where he had stopped to ask directions. The light flickered on his curly dark hair and beard, framing close-set eyes and vaguely Middle-Eastern features. That was David, our guide from Bicycle Africa — also, we learned, its founder, director, and secretary. "My office looks suspiciously like my bedroom," he confessed with a laugh.

Only later did David tell us that "Cameroon: Country of Contrasts" was "the most difficult bicycle tour on the market." He had been advertising it for two years and could only attract four customers. Us. He had led a tour of Cameroon just once before, two years earlier, with only three clients, one of whom, like Hanno, had turned around and gone home in less than a week. Had I known these things as I followed David's white helmet through the shadowy crowds, my excitement might have been tempered. But that's the good part about the future: it doesn't have to contain any flaws until it becomes the present.

I had enough to worry about in the dark here-and-now of crowded streets, sudden taxis, motorcycles, and crater-sized potholes. Everything seemed to blare like car horns: the music, the smells, the faces, the headlights, all in dizzy confusion. I tried to concentrate on my riding and keep an eye on David up ahead. I didn't want to miss a turn and get lost in the gauntlet of madness which seemed to comprise Douala, the largest city in Cameroon.

We made our way to the Hôtel Kontchupé, a chain of low buildings on a narrow street above the waterfront, where I could see the lights in the rigging of a small freighter. We parked our bicycles on a terrace fenced with black wrought iron. A mural decorated one mustard-colored wall, a montage of musical instruments, masks, and a pre-Cubist angular figure raising what looked like a martini glass.

Three of us moved along the terrace to the Café des Sports while David spoke with the manager in "survival French," the same kind I possessed. Still too early in the evening for nightlife, the bar was empty and smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke. The young bartender was just putting on a record, and West African rhythms pumped out of the speakers. The walls were decorated with lurid black-light posters of skeletal bikers and voluptuous leather-clad females. After a long look around, the three of us took a seat at the bar.

Usually when I begin a trip like that, the hardest thing is learning everybody's name. You meet ten or twenty people at one time, and their names float right through your head, or, as often happens, your brain assigns them names which suit them, but aren't necessarily theirs. You put on an open-friendly face, try to make neutral conversation, and wait for someone else to address them by name. This time, though, it would be easy — only five people on the tour, and I knew two of their names already: David's and my own.

I helped my two companions order drinks, as they were from California, where French is normally limited to Chardonnay and Perrier. I was getting their names now. Leonard was the tall black guy with the thick rimless glasses, and Elsa was the older woman, slender, with short pale hair and sharp features. No problem. Then a commotion outside intruded, even over the loud music, and the three of us moved to the door. A Japanese taxi was pulled up in front of the hotel, and David was helping the driver lift a boxed bicycle out of the trunk. Our fifth rider had arrived, and she stood looking on, her hands moving as if she wanted to help but didn't know what to do. I couldn't remember her name from the roster, but David came to my rescue. "This is Annie." While I shook her hand I tried to stamp it into my memory. Okay, Annie. Leonard is the tall black guy; Elsa is the older woman, and Annie is the long dark hair with the open-mouth smile.

Annie joined us in the bar, still smiling, her hands still tending to move as if she wanted to help but didn't know what to do. Someone asked about her job, described on the roster as systems analyst.

"The ultimate post-modern job description," I said with a laugh.

"Um, well ... heh-heh ... it's the best definition I could think of for a kind of ... um ... everything job," Annie said, and we nodded and smiled and made small talk with the conscious politeness of strangers who know they are going to be living together for a month. A month can be a long time.

David returned to lead us to our rooms, back into the hotel side of the building and through a maze of stairs and corridors, something M.C. Escher might have drawn. One room for the men, one for the women, and all of us sharing a dingy toilet which crouched in a closet along the zigzag hall. An arched doorway led into our room: green linoleum floor, dark ceiling of peeling wood, and walls of grimy white stucco decorated with an incongruous Afro-Arabian-gypsy-disco kind of hanging. Naked bulbs in the corners spread feeble light down over two drooping beds. The bar downstairs was warming up for the night, and the music vibrated up through the walls.

Having inspected the room, we decided to go out for something to eat. Just as we stepped off the terrace of the Hôtel Kontchupé, one of a group of men standing there called out to us. It appeared to be a warning, but the rudimentary French which David and I possessed could not decipher it. Then I realized he was pointing at my leather beltpack, and telling me to be careful against thieves.

Now I had just finished reading a section in Africa on a Shoestring on Douala:

It isn't a particularly pleasant place: mosquitoes and muggings are both problems at night, so watch out. Even during the day you may well find suspicious-looking people following you around waiting for the right opportunity.

So although my bag was firmly attached around my waist, I closed one hand around it and put on what I hoped was a menacing face. As we turned the corner into the main street, David suggested that in a place like Douala he made it a point to walk down the middle of the street at night. It seemed like an excellent idea.

Unlike the part of town we had ridden through earlier, this was not an area of nightlife. No inferno here; in the humid half-light it wore the air of a decadent avenue after midnight. Lone cars whisked by at intervals. The sparse streetlights were further attenuated by thick trees, ferns growing between the limbs and vines along the branches. Most of the store windows were protected by iron grilles, guarding displays of cheap furniture, appliances, stereo equipment, and even a croissant shop.

A row of trestle-tables along the sidewalk offered the only life and the only visible commerce, a kind of on-the-street convenience store selling food, drinks, and cigarettes. David spoke to a thread-bare man who tended a glowing brazier, and we sat down on a rough wooden bench while he cracked eggs into a pan.

The dark boulevard was called the Boulevard du Président Ahmadou Ahidjo, and I'd learned something about that name. Ahidjo had been the president of Cameroon from independence in 1961 until 1982, when he stepped down in favor of his chosen successor, the current president Paul Biya. For some reason Ahidjo changed his mind, and in 1984 attempted a coup from outside the country. Though unsuccessful, there was bloody fighting in the streets of Yaoundé, the capital city, and the aftermath was sweeping. Ahidjo had represented the Islamic northerners, many of whom were purged from the government. Strikes were banned, the national press became a propaganda puppet, foreign journalists came under continual harassment, and the government adopted unlimited powers to suppress dissidence. Amnesty International claims that Cameroon keeps hundreds of political prisoners imprisoned without trial. The most visible effect to us would be that, because the coup had been engineered from outside Cameroon, a deep suspicion of foreigners was forged. For the next month we would travel under the shadow of that xenophobia.

The omelette man delivered his wares one at a time, lifting the fried circles of smashed eggs onto plastic plates, then passing us a boxful of cutlery. The omelette was excellent, spiced with sausage and pimento. By the glow of a kerosene lamp, small talk flickered among our group, and I smiled to be alone among strangers once again, in a place I'd barely heard of just a few months before.

We strolled a little farther along the quiet street, everything indistinct and a little spooky in the shadow of the trees, and reached a corner where a closed gas station served as a gathering place for a crowd of lounging youths. When they turned toward us and began to mutter among themselves, David suggested it might be prudent to retrace our steps to the hotel.

The walls of our room still rocked with the exuberant music from the downstairs bar, which had modulated into a series of American '50s rock. But I had no trouble falling into a deep sleep, even to the throbbing lullaby of "Rock Around the Clock."

* * *

Though the Hôtel Kontchupé was in the heart of the city, I awoke to the sound of roosters, as I would nearly every morning in Cameroon. We packed our belongings into our panniers and hung them on the bikes, then pedaled a short way down Boulevard du Président Ahmadou Ahidjo to the croissant shop. The morning was already hot, though the sky was white with overcast, as we lined our bikes together against a tree and took a table by the street.

People hurried past along the sidewalk, the men wearing Western-style trousers and light-colored shirts, though a few wore the long Islamic robes of white cotton. Some women dressed in blouses and modest skirts, but most seemed to be clad in the colorful print wraps called pagnes, which covered them from the waist to the ankles, with a matching headscarf and a plain blouse. They were handsome people, strong well-formed bodies walking proudly, and their features were often arrayed in a nearly circular symmetry of mouth and eyebrows, sometimes suggesting a moon-face. We looked raw and pink and conspicuous, except for Leonard, and men and women alike turned to look at us. But these were sophisticated urbanites. They never broke stride.

After strong coffee and rolls, we climbed back on the bicycles and rode out into the traffic. Concrete buildings of two or three stories were painted in pale colors, but stained by mold and smoke, their walls hung with crumbling balconies and weathered shutters. Slender palms curved overhead, while giant ferns and exotic shrubs crowded over the walls like clusters of green swords. I moved in behind Leonard, and as we pedaled through town I watched his gray T-shirt darken with sweat.

We covered the last-minute errands: changing money, buying the postcards and stamps which would not be available where we were going. During a quick tour of the artisan's market we were urged by the voices and gestures of the merchants to spend some time and money with them, but we only scanned the carvings, spears, masks, drums, and brass figurines. As David pointed out, "If you're thinking seriously about buying anything, you'd better think seriously about carrying it around for a thousand miles."

By mid-morning the heat had become an electric blanket, and even the trees appeared to droop over the roadway, wilting in the humid swelter. It was already apparent that Elsa was going to have trouble, as we waited for her at every intersection and stop. (Basic rule of bike touring: Always wait for the next rider at a turn, and the last rider should never be left alone.) But, at sixty years old, Elsa was entitled to allowances, and a slower rider is not necessarily a problem among a faster group. You see more by stopping occasionally to wait for them than you would by pedaling steadily along, and it can be more relaxing to hang back and take it easy. I made a mental resolution to try to be more relaxed in my own pace, not be so driven and urgent to reach the destination every day. I would take time to enjoy it; I would stay back with Elsa.

At last we were on our way out of town. A long, crumbling causeway traversed the Wouri River (the one Vasco da Gama had named the River of Prawns), wide and shallow near its delta, then led us into a low-lying coastal region. Heavy waving reeds and grasses on either side of the road gave way to tall palms and opaque deciduous trees. Occasional patches of pond and swamp opened among the greenery, and made a home for water birds like the hamerkop, a peculiar bird I'd come to know in East Africa.


Excerpted from The Masked Rider by Neil Peart. Copyright © 2004 Neil Peart. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Reading Group Guide

It is said that one travels to East Africa for the animals, and to West Africa for the people. My first dream of Africa was a siren-call from the East African savanna … great herds of wildlife shimmering in the heat haze of the Serengeti, the Rift Valley lakes swarming with birds, the icy summit of Kilimanjaro. So I went there, and I loved it. The following year I went looking for an interesting way to visit West Africa, to learn more about the African people — the animals drew me to Africa, but the people brought me back. After much searching I found a name — Bicycle Africa — and signed up for a month-long tour of “Cameroon: Country of Contrasts.” At the end of it I swore I’d never do anything like that again — but the following year I forgot my vow, and returned to bicycle through Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. Cycling is a good way to travel anywhere, but especially in Africa; you are independent and mobile, and yet travel at “people speed” — fast enough to move on to another town in the cooler morning hours, but slow enough to meet the people: the old farmer at the roadside who raises his hand and says “You are welcome,” the tireless woman who offers a shy smile to a passing cyclist, the children whose laughter transcends the humblest home. The unconditional welcome to tired travelers is part of the charm, but it is also what is simply African: the villages and markets, the way people live and work, their cheerful (or at least stoic) acceptance of adversity, and their rich culture: the music, the magic, the carvings — the masks of Africa. Africa is such a network of illusions, a double-faced mask. It is as difficult to see into it as it is to see out of it. To those who’ve never been there it is an utter mystery, a continent veiled in myths and mistaken impressions, but it is equally obscure to those who have never been anywhere else. It used to be said that electronic media would bring the world closer together, but too often the focus on the sensational only distorts the reality — drives us farther apart. That is why in Ghana the children followed me down the street chanting “Rambo! Rambo!” and that is why Canadians look at me as if I were a lunatic when I tell them I’ve been cycling in Africa — they can only picture it from wildlife documentaries, TV images of starvation camps, and old Tarzan movies. Africa fascinates me — in the true sense, I suppose, as a snake is said to transfix its prey. And the more times I return, the more countries I visit, the more the place perplexes me. Africa has so much magic, but so much madness. Yet I keep returning, and surely will again. This attraction is compelling and seems to grow stronger, but, like any lasting relationship, it is no longer blind. And maybe that’s always true. After the first infatuation we’re always most critical of what we feel the strongest about. It’s too often the case in relationships, and certainly regarding one’s own family or country. You can criticize your own, but don’t let anyone else try it. That’s when love shows its teeth. If my attraction to Africa is no longer blind, it is still blurry. From within and without, Africa is as much the “Dark Continent” as it was two hundred years ago — hard to see into, hard to see out of. The mask obscures a face which is so complex and contradictory; it takes a lot of traveling even to get a sense of it. And traveling in Africa is, by necessity, adventure travel. Some people travel for pleasure, and sometimes find adventure; others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it. A journey to a remote place is exciting to look forward to, certainly rewarding to look back upon, but not always pleasurable to live minute by minute. Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably real. But that’s the price of admission — you have to do it. One reason for making such a journey is to experience the mystery of unknown places, but another, perhaps more important, reason is to take yourself out of your “context” — home, job, and friends. Travel is its own reward, but traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them. To your companions and the people you encounter you are the stranger; to them you are a brand-new person. That’s something to think about, and if you try you might glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, without a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even scarier.