One bewildered, insignificant ape believes he has answers to these questions.
Michael Mackay Richards is one of around 400 Homo sapiens – 0.000000001% of people who’ve ever lived – to have visited over 150 of the world’s 195 countries. Last time he checked, there were officially quite a lot of countries.
The Travelling Ape explores what traveling the world taught him about life, humanity, and the geopolitical turmoil that defines us.
And how the journey changed him as a person, too. From the streets of Pyongyang, to silent meditation retreats in India, and to riding an abandoned rollercoaster in Iraq for some reason, no stone is left unturned on this epic (and sometimes weird) global odyssey.
A journey infused with sharp insights and equally readable anecdotes of personal humiliation, when travel goes wrong.
With a unique voice, one of the best-travelled apes in history offers you a fresh take on the world. It’s one that just might help you fall back in love with it.”
Excerpt from the Book: An Addis Abada Interlude
It was early, but already stiflingly hot. I’d arrived late the night before and, still groggy, wasn’t ready for the early-morning assault on my senses that I was about to experience. The streets were chaotic. Full of cars, people, and bajas (local tuk tuks).
The city echoed with the sounds of honking horns. Not quite ready to submit ourselves to the maelstrom of the morning rush hour, my friend Alex and I decided that food and coffee were a good idea.
We ducked into a dark little coffee shop. Its wooden panels and dim lighting didn’t fill us with too much hope. But this was Ethiopia – its capital Addis Ababa, to be precise. Coffee production here dated back centuries. This is where arabica coffee originates. So perhaps appearances could be deceiving.
The coffees arrived, thick and black. They tasted wonderful. Not only because of their rich and sweet flavors, but also because of their alluring scent. The thick coffee in Ethiopia is like rocket fuel. It felt like the caffeine was actively widening my eyes and pulling me out of my lethargic state.
Before we left, a waiter plonked a strange-looking flatbread in front of us. That we hadn’t asked for. Filled with hundreds of tiny holes, its surface looked like a cross-section of a beehive, with a smooth, beige underside. Piled in the middle was a large clump of rich red lentils, which as we’d discover shortly, was at the absolute limit of tolerable spice.
“This is Injera”
‘This is injera bread and messer wot. It’s the local delicacy, you have to try it!’ the waiter told us. We gobbled it down. The injera bread had a bitter kind of aftertaste, and was denser than the traditional loafs I was used to back home in England. But it was delicious, a sign of how we’d eat in Ethiopia over the next few weeks.
Although we’d end up living off the stuff for the rest of our trip, we learned that mixing spice and caffeine so early in the morning was potentially unwise, and something our digestive systems didn’t altogether agree with.
Feeling refreshed – or wired, more accurately – we hailed a baja. We hopped in the back. The rusty little cabin was painted a rich blue and dotted with delicate ornaments. The dashboard was covered in stickers, many emblazoned with the Ethiopian horizontal tri-color flag of green, gold, and red.
After we’d settled in, the baja driver smiled and looked back at us.
‘How are you guys doing? What are your names?’ he said, in good English.
‘Mike and Alex,’ I replied, my voice only just audible above the rattling engine and hectic streetscape.
‘Oh cool, my name is Alex too.’
The Baja Driver and the Tourists
Whether or not this was something the baja driver did with all tourists, we’ll never know. But in any case, ‘Alex Two’ seemed friendly. In fact, he seemed unable to stop chatting to us. As we weaved through the crowed roads of Addis, with the smell of diesel in our nostrils, he spent more time looking at us than the road. If this wasn’t disconcerting enough, he was more than happy to drive as fast as possible too.
He regularly veered into lanes with oncoming traffic, darting between cars, escaping collisions by mere inches. And we couldn’t help noticing that his eyes were bloodshot, his pupils as big as dinner plates.
‘Are you guys okay? Having a good time?’ he kept asking us. In fact, he repeated this phrase so many times that I wondered whether he was really asking himself this question, given his slightly erratic state.
In between swerving and swaying, we noticed that he was munching ravenously on a bag of leaves, something I wasn’t used to seeing, it has to be said. Noticing our confused faces, he said ‘Ah, this is chat. You guys want some?’ I’d read that chat is a common legal stimulant, and people use it all over Ethiopia.
We didn’t want to seem rude. And I felt pretty sure that accepting drugs from strangers was actively encouraged by mothers worldwide (right?). Plus, I figured I may as well enjoy the final moments of my life before we crashed and died, so we duly obliged. The leaves tasted bitter and starchy. Eating them required copious amounts of water to make them in any way palatable, and Alex Two said we’d need to eat a whole pack before it did anything.
But after quite a bit of munching, we eventually understood where our driver’s misplaced confidence on the road came from. We felt wired and alert, even more so than after our earlier strong coffee. And fittingly, very chatty indeed. For the remainder of our frenzied journey through the streets of Addis, we happily nattered away, barely noticing the latest near miss.
Addis is a pulsating place. As we traversed the city’s loud and busy streets in the baja, the faint outline of the Ethiopian Highlands was only just perceptible through the city’s hazy and polluted skies. Low rise structures appeared to have been hastily constructed using concrete or sheet metal, while the skyline was peppered with a slew of striking new skyscrapers. A sign of the city’s – Africa’s fourth largest, and the continent’s administrative capital – growing influence and confidence.
Another Concrete Box
Eventually, we reached our destination. We bode Alex Two farewell. He zoomed off into the distance, about to submit some other clueless tourists to one of the most intense experiences of their lives. The building we’d been dropped outside didn’t look like much. Another concrete box. The only thing which signified that this place was located in Ethiopia was the beautiful Ge’ez script adorning the entrance of it, a local form of writing that rejects the Latin alphabet and has its roots in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Still swinging between euphoria and feelings of fairly substantial anxiety – my heart was beating much faster than I’d ideally have liked, due to the caffeine and chat – we stepped into the unremarkable-looking structure. Which upon entry, revealed itself to be no less drab.
The corridors were dark and dank. The whole building was dilapidated, a ’60s relic which had presumably seen better days. Though its brutalist architecture might not have even looked good when it was completed decades ago. Nonetheless, I ventured further inside. There was only one reason why I was there in the first place. To meet a relative.
After further minutes spent getting lost in the maze of corridors and mouldy-smelling rooms, she came into view.
‘Is she supposed to be this small?’ I said to Alex. And then, ‘To be fair, she actually looks pretty good for her age. She doesn’t look a day older than 3.2 million years.’
‘Did you think of that one on the journey over here?’ Alex said.
‘Maybe, but you get my point.’
I was in the crumbling National Museum of Ethiopia. In front of me was the skeleton of ‘Lucy’, one of the oldest surviving fossils we have of Australopithecines. These tiny apes – just three feet tall – were actually early humans. At the time of discovery in 1972, Lucy was the oldest found potential ancestor for every known hominin species…
Michael MacKay Richards is a global economic and political research analyst from London, UK. Prior to this, he completed undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Politics and International Relations from the University of Bristol in England. His passion for global affairs extends to travel. He’s visited 155 out of the world’s 195 countries according to the United Nations (UN) definition, documenting his travels and views on his website www.thetravellingape.com and on his Instagram (@thetravellingape).
Certainly in his own experience, travel has made him more open minded and curious about the world. It has also given him the tools – including meditation which he learned on a 10-day silent retreat in India – to be a happier person. This is the positive message he hopes to spread through his blog, social media, and now, in his first book.