When the explorer Mungo Park trudged into the African bush in the late 18th century he was fascinated by the Africans’ attachment to their amulets, or saphies, as they were called along the banks of the Gambia river and beyond. In most cases saphies consisted of prayers or sentences extracted from the Koran, written by the “Mahomedan” priests. These scraps of paper were considered to possess quite extraordinary virtues. Amulets, or talismans, or charms, each with their subtle difference, are of course not limited to the African bush but used the world over, probably dating back as long ago as man squatting beside the fire, the half-eaten, charred leg of a sabre-tooth tiger in one hand and his club in the other. Pliny the Elder named the amulet as ‘… an object that protects a person from trouble …’ which means the string of garlic, the bag of herbs, the talons of a Bald eagle or the pebble dredged from a river all have the ability to keep one from harm, once the power is ascribed by the owner. I guess many in this day and age dismiss the amulet as so much balderdash, at worst the conviction of a lunatic. I must admit, I’m the first to scoff at the thought of a lion’s molar protecting you from the ravages of wild animals, the thrust of a spear or that maniac overtaking on a blind Ecuadorian bend in his 25 tonne truck. Generally they occupy no place in my thoughts. So why have we so many of them in our car?
As the fifth leg of our trans-American journey draws to a close, and we make plans for a few months back in the Old Country, it’s time once again to purge the car of the myriad things collected over the past eight months. Items we’ve bought, stashed and forgotten are uncovered, along with the bits and pieces no longer worthy of the journey, and the clothing we’ll take home with us. Stacked in various piles the vehicle is gradually emptied, cleaned and re-packed. It’s a time for pondering over what will continue to be useful, what’s served its purpose and what’s downright garbage. It’s during this process where we encounter the various “amulets” around the vehicle which, following a brisk dusting, are immediately returned to their place, where they have unconsciously taken root at various times during our four year journey. I’m quite sure there are a couple of them that could be slung out, though neither of us are prepared to take that decision … just in case. A curious, intangible reasoning lurks in the recesses of the mind as to why they must remain. So, what does our collection of amulets constitute?
A canvas pouch tucked away on a shelf contains a silver St Christopher pendant, given to me by my mother when I began travelling extensively years ago. Legend holds that it was St Christopher who carried a young Jesus across a raging river and ever since he has been recognized as the patron saint of travellers. If one is to carry an amulet on their travels this is a pretty good one to tuck away. The other items in this canvas pouch are considerably more dubious. The bootlaces and ear plugs are there entirely for practical reasons, however the brown, shiny pebble in the shape of Africa is more questionable. The Africa Stone, I believe, was found in Mexico and because we had such good fortunes on our travels in Africa, it gets to stay. The delicate, sensuous cowrie shells, also from Mexico, could definitely be ditched. Used for a couple of centuries as a trading currency in Africa, the cowrie shell has no tradition as an amulet as far as I know. Yet, as I look at them now in my hand, I’m quite certain, no matter how small they appear, that The Cowrie Shells contain the power of the oceans. There may come a day when we need to call on their strength. There are a half dozen of them. They go back in the pouch for next time.
A length of red ribbon with Toyota written in gold is wrapped around the rear-view mirror. This was bought at the shrine of the Difunta Correa in Vallecito, Argentina. Legend tells of a young man who, around the time of the Argentine civil war, was forcibly recruited and sent to Rioja to fight. His wife missed her husband terribly and one day she set out from San Juan with her baby to find him. In the deserts of the San Juan province she perished from thirst. When her body was found some days later the infant was found still alive, having survived by suckling its mother’s breast. This semi-pagan, mythical figure is revered as a protective symbol by drivers of trucks and cars and buses throughout Argentina and Chile. Roadside shrines dedicated to her will often be spotted, many containing gifts in the form of plastic water bottles. This ribbon has faced Christine’s scissors more than once, though it’s still with us. I guess it’s just too risky to discard it.
Our principal amulet, which is really a mascot I suppose, is a tiny model of Brian the Snail, of Magic Roundabout fame (a children’s TV programme, for those not in the know). Our vehicle is named Brian, after Brian the snail and the fact that our truck is so ponderously slow on the road. Christine bought Brian the snail just before our journey in South America began, presenting him to me as a birthday present during our voyage across the Atlantic. His place has been on the dashboard ever since leaving Buenos Aires, where he’s watched 90,000 trans-American kilometres click by, the red paint on his shell steadily fading in the sun. Any near-miss out on the road, and we’ve had one or two, we tend to tap Brian the snail once on his shell, for providing us with his protection.
The final two amulets have been given to us along the way. They have been close to a dustbin a couple of times and only for some curious intervention do they remain. Crossing the Garibaldi Pass (Tierra del Fuego) back in March 2012, the snow settling across the road, we had descended quickly to Tolhuin, making a return visit to the eccentric Camping Hain. That day an icy wind blew across Lake Fagnano, the rollers crashing on the beach. On arrival Roberto, the owner of Camping Hain, was frantically nailing his ornamental wheelbarrows back on top of the wall they’d blown off.
‘The wind is 120 kph today,’ he’d shouted. ‘Come in the refugio, I’ll make a fire.’
At Camping Hain the refugio is a log cabin containing a makeshift kitchen, wooden benches and a large cylinder salvaged from a gas works, into which Roberto flung some timber, followed by a match. I think it’s fair to say that the refugio is probably held together by the planks of wood nailed to the walls on which travellers have scrawled their messages of hope, aspiration and success. This place is a shrine, a meeting place and melting pot for nomads. The freezing wind continued howling outside, making it one of the coldest nights we’d experienced for some weeks. Doing our best to thaw out the following morning, Roberto presented us with what’s become known as The Hain Pebble, something he’d painted himself in a garish yellow and purple.
‘Come back in the winter,’ he cried as we’d driven, shivering with cold, out of the gate. ‘It’s very beautiful here in the winter.’
To this day The Hain Pebble retains its position in the cup holder beside the gear lever. Goodness knows what powers it has as an amulet; one thing’s for sure: in the steaming jungles of central America it was cooling to hold Roberto’s gift in the palm of the hand and recall that freezing night at Camping Hain.
Our final amulet is The Nohelia Cross. Finca Nohelia is an 80 hectare estate near Jerico, in Colombia’s coffee-lands. Alongside their coffee plantation Jon and his father harvest mango, papaya, avocados, oranges, lemons and sugar cane. From our camping spot we enjoyed a vista of green hills, steep, cultivated fields, smallholdings dotted across the ridges and patches of thick jungle. There were moments during our stay we thought of Finca Nohelia as paradise. On day two we met Jose Velasquez and his dog, a brown mongrel named Lucas Alberto Velasquez. Jose was fizzing with nervous energy. He is a campesino and had been working all day on the slopes leading to the Rio Piedras. The hand that shook mine was stained from the coffee beans he’d been picking. Jose had insisted we visit his mother’s house some 100 metres down the lane, where he showed us his vegetable patch, the two shrubs placed strategically to ward off evil spirits, some well-kept chickens in a bamboo enclosure, his banana tree, the bench he sat on each evening to enjoy his bottle of beer, the rows of flowers lovingly tended by his mother and the contents of his tienda, a small shop, because we were an hour’s walk from the town. Use my motorbike any time you wish, he’d said, pointing to the keys hanging on the wall. In the house Jose’s mother offered us cold drinks as we were led from from room to room, each point of interest explained, until I imagined there was little left to know of Jose’s life. This openness and hospitality had been typical of the Colombian people, leaving us perplexed how the country had accommodated, and still does to a lesser degree, such violence and cruelty for so long. We had heard so much bad news of Colombia that for a while an alternative route up to Panama had been considered. In the event we stayed the course. We rested four days at Finca Nohelia and when we left Jon sent us on our way with what I now call the Nohelia Cross, a small, gnarled wooden cross poking from a knob of hewn stone. This cross from Colombia, which spends its days beside the gear lever, is an important reminder that, in a world of such mayhem and insecurity, humanity invariably prevails.
As the Boeing 747 rumbles into the sky, and we commence our journey back to Europe, we rest easy knowing our saphies are each in their place. The explorer Mungo Park, I’m quite sure, would have been amused.