I find that travel writing is one of the best ways to attune to one’s inner gonzo. Perhaps it’s best explained by the saying truth is stranger than fiction. Indeed, the mere experience of finding yourself in sand-swept Nouakchott, Mauritania, just after leaving a comfy flat in Amsterdam can hammer home said reality is a fine feeling to savor.
Especially from the comfort of a good book, which is what My Mercedes is Not for Sale: From Amsterdam to Ouagadougou…an Auto Mis-adventure across the Sahara delivers. Jeroen van Bergeijk tells the story of his seemingly innocuous quest to deliver his car, a Mercedes-Benz 190 D through Saharan Africa in a grand quest to…wait for it…sell it.
But it is so much more than that. After a brief introduction to the culture of Mercedes-Benz as well as his own car, he immediately takes the reader to the dust, deception, poverty, corruption and overall culture of Western Africa and its obsession with the automotive throwaways of Europe. Peppered with the historical outlook of various historical/literary visitors such as James Riley, Mungo Park, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the culture becomes more engrossing. It’s a comedic, frightening, even meaningful romp through countries like Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Togo and Burkina Faso in search of some adventure as well as a quick sale.
The great thing about this book is that it’s not geared toward the hardcore car enthusiast, but rather the culture of someplace deemed exotic or authentic; the car is merely the vehicle, ahem, of such authenticity. Which is, he states, in the spirit of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (to which he often refers), the act of trying to grasp the essence of a place. As the book progresses, he seems to get a whole lot of it, perhaps more than he bargains for.
Africa’s authentic essence is timelessness. “Things in Africa come in two forms,” he states, “broken and not broken”. With the insistence that life is thus lived according to the phrase “god willing” or “inshallah”, time really has no place here. He states that for these people, there is no future; everything, every decision is done for the moment for survival.
This sentiment is evident through all characters encountered along the way, from the ever-predictable corrupt border officials (regardless of country), to roving bands of car thieves and drug traffickers, desert guides, car merchants/repairmen, to everyday citizens looking to employ the fine art of finagling or chep-chep, just to make their daily ends meet.
But aside from the corruption, poverty and lawlessness, van Bergeijk also finds a sense of serenity and exquisite freedom in his journey. Meeting colorful tourists and expats along the way he realizes how Africa is a destination for people running away from something, that it has comfort to offer.
In the end, this is an extremely fast and engaging read about an often overlooked area of the world in which is found an essence that’s worth deeper examination. It truly is an authentic work, well worth reading.