I return from the quiet spot at the far end of the beach with my video camera. It is almost completely dark, and the soldiers have set up camp in one of the huts. Unpacking my sleeping gear on one of the beach loungers some distance away, I notice a figure walking towards me. I’m surprised, and a little confused, when I see a Chinese-looking face emerging from the darkness on this abandoned beach in the middle of Yemen. And I am even more surprised when he greets me in perfect, Canadian-accented English.
‘You must be the cyclist I’ve heard about!’
‘Er – yeah. Yeah, that’s right!’
‘Joe. Nice to meet you.’
‘I’m Tom. Erm – what are you doing here, exactly?’
Joe tells me his story as we walk back over to the little open-fronted beach hut in which he’s set up for the night. He’s been living on this beach, he says, for almost a month. Joe is a Canadian photographer with Chinese origins, about the same age as me, unfortunate (or fortunate) enough to have been studying in Beirut at the moment when Israel’s military decided that it was high time for another invasion. Anthropology degree on hold, he’d grabbed an ageing camera, convinced a Western war-photographer to let him tag along, and had snapped a picture that had gone on to win first prize at the biggest photojournalism award ceremony on the planet. That award had launched his career.
‘I’ll probably go back to Beirut and finish my studies some day,’ he says, ‘but right now it’s pretty cool to be making a living like this – travelling the whole time, and to a lot of places that outsiders would never usually get to see, like here – and I get to take photographs, which is something I’ve found a real passion for doing . . . and I’ve got a home base in New York, as well . . . it’s a pretty nice place to be.’
I sit back as the Milky Way emerges and begins to illuminate a world in which all other light is absent. The soldiers, along with Joe’s government-assigned guide, are talking quietly in a hut nearby. Looking up at the starscape, I get the sudden sensation of being stranded on a rock, hurtling through space, while the ancient stars peer down at these weird little beings, convinced beyond doubt that their affairs and concerns are universal in magnitude as they pop in and out of existence, like sparks, upon the surface of that hurtling blue rock.
The next day, I badger the crew of sleepy gunmen mercilessly, and I eventually cycle off, leaving them behind. The sun is almost up: I need to get some miles behind me while it’s still cool.
They catch up a few minutes later and the Landcruiser trundles annoyingly along behind me at thirteen miles an hour, the soldiers no doubt wishing they’d never agreed to let me back on the road. Before too long I hear a horn being sounded. The pick-up has pulled to a halt behind me and the occupants are gesturing that they’ll catch up further on. So much for a personal bodyguard.
I ride undisturbed through the flowing undulations of sand and rock. Alone again in an empty landscape, I can think of nothing but the incredible slowness of my progress on this bicycle. Why had I been so insistent with the soldiers that I continue to ride? What am I gaining by doing so, except further confirmation that I am indeed able to force my body to pedal endlessly through the most debilitating of conditions? I know this already. I have confirmed it time and time again.
The truck is nowhere to be seen, and I ride for half an hour before I round a bend and find a large crowd of people walking along the road towards me. Drawing closer, I realise that these are no Yemeni locals. The group of twenty or thirty, some barefoot, a few clutching plastic bags of clothes, but most empty handed, trudge forlornly and quietly through the sand beside the road. Then I realise that these are the people that Joe has been waiting to meet for a month.
I speak to the young man who leads the group.
‘What are you doing here?’
I’m not sure what else to ask.
‘We have come from Somalia,’ he starts, in good English. ‘We have just arrived here. We have nothing. We don’t know where we are . . .’
He trails off and gazes down the road, the men, women and children behind him silent, staring blankly around them.
‘When did you arrive, exactly?’
‘Last night. Down there.’ He points towards a nondescript piece of coastline. The ocean, flecked with white, extends beyond as far as the eye can see.
‘We arrived by boat. From Somalia,’ he continues.
The truck has appeared in the distance behind me and is approaching at speed.
‘We need help. Anything you can do to help, we would appreciate. A place where we can go – anything.’
‘Erm . . .’
The soldiers overtake and park up the road ahead of us. I can hear them talking on the radio, but none of them get out of the truck. They are waiting for me.
‘I’m sorry . . . I’m not from around here.’ It’s all I can think of to say. How stupid I sound. I am here of my own free will. They risked their lives last night to stand here today. The group may well have been larger when it departed from Somalia, and these people may now be wondering what became of the friends and brothers and sisters and children and parents who were supposed to arrive alongside them on this stretch of coastline. And they will arrive, in a few days’ time, lying in the sun on Yemen’s beautiful empty beaches; bloated corpses which were once alive and determined, having taken that leap of faith to abandon the place they were born in; the place that – until yesterday – they called home, knowing that they may never see land again. And in taking that risk, they will have lost everything to a roll of the dice. Their bodies are what Joe came to Yemen to photograph.
But I have to do something!
‘OK – about five miles that way,’ I say, pointing down the road behind me, ‘there’s a village. There are already people from Somalia there. A refugee camp. If you go there, they might be able to help you.’
And that’s all that this heroic ‘adventurer’ can offer. The group shuffles off down the roadside, plastic bags rustling in the silence.
I walk to the truck, and soon we are hurtling down the road once more at a hundred miles an hour. Part of me considers asking the soldiers to call Joe to help him with his story. But the very idea seems absurd. Joe’s news story isn’t a god-damned story. It’s a group of people; people with histories and families and feelings, who have just stood barefoot on the roadside, stared me in the face and asked for help – any help, anything at all. Joe’s story will blend seamlessly into the ocean of bad news that breaks against the strongholds of the wealthy and free, masquerading as exposition of the world’s woes, but really achieving little but convincing us of how much awful stuff is happening ‘out there’, of how lucky we are not to live in such hopeless desperation – and of how fearful of losing that position of privilege we ought to be. He might even win another award for his pictures.
Nevertheless, I find myself envying Joe. He knows precisely what he is doing, here, in Yemen. It doesn’t matter what his government-assigned guide thinks, or what opinion a passing bicycle traveller has of his work. He is doing what he thinks is right; he is making a contribution to the world, and he is doing so with determination. Even the refugees, trudging silently along the roadside, have grasped their fate with both hands. They too have determination; they knew precisely what they were doing when they clambered aboard the rickety boat on a Somali beach under cover of darkness, and even if they have not yet lived out a single day under the Arabian sun, they at least know what they had in mind when they arrived here.
The Omani border is drawing close. Oman; home of the fabled Empty Quarter desert. A thousand miles of sand. The scorching heat of June.
It will be the final push – the last big challenge of this journey – all the way to the Gulf. There, I’ll find a ship to take me across the water to Iran. And then I’ll arrive in Tehran, at the door of Tenny’s family home. So much time and so many miles has passed between us; I have no idea whether that rift will heal. Like so much of this journey, it will be a foray into the unknown, driven by hope and curiosity. I will get to know her all over again, and she will get to know me – a man who has delved too far into his own head, by way of half of the African continent and a lap of the Middle East, and is trying to find his way back. I suspect that I will have to get to know myself again as I re-adapt to life within society; of seeing people more than once after waving goodbye, of sleeping in the same bed each night, of holding a conversation with someone other than myself.
The winter boots are waiting in Tehran, as well as that winter sleeping-bag, so that I can continue through Central Asia and Tibet, and eventually to the Far East. For as long as the journey remains relevant, I’d said to myself. But many times recently have I been reminded that my journey is in need of a renewed purpose. I need to acknowledge this; that momentum alone may not be longer enough. I have been stubborn in the past, and that stubbornness has certainly got me where I needed to go. But there is a difference between stubbornness and determination. Determination is inspired by clarity of purpose. Stubbornness exists in spite of it. If I set forth from Tehran for another journey of months or years, leaving Tenny behind once more . . . which of these things will be driving me?
Saying goodbye to my armed escort at Al-Mukalla, I lift myself into the saddle and scan the horizon. Soon I will be in Oman, and then the Emirates. Only a few more days of riding now remain.
Stomach full, I lie back upon the sand. A dune the size of a house watches over me as I look up at the obsidian sky, and I begin to sink into the kind of sleep that only a hundred-mile day of desert cycling can produce.
Funny, now, to think that I’m here because of an idea to cycle round the world. Instead of a day’s ride short of Dubai, I’d be somewhere in Australia right now, had I followed the path laid out by Ride Earth, desperately thinking up ways to get to South America without flying, then setting forth for another few thousand miles, reaching Middleton a couple of years later, arriving beneath another banner of white balloons to a pat on the back and a cup of tea.
What an anticlimax that would be – to close the book like that, leaning my bike up in my parents’ garage, saying, ‘Yes, I have finished.’ I would never look at a fully loaded bicycle again! My life during that time would become a neat package, something kept on a shelf and occasionally dusted off to flick through with a sigh whenever someone asked what I’d done with my twenties. I no longer feel the need to start with a capital letter, put a full stop at the end of last line, and keep things in between nice and neat. I don’t want to build my time on the road into an achievement so grand that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to get one over on my younger self, trying to frame my future actions to sound bigger and grander than before.
What drove me to leave England, I remind myself, was a desire simply to learn – not for any distant end, but for the joy of learning itself; about the world and, I suppose, about myself. Though it will take years to process, I’ve learnt so much that I could not have learnt any other way. And I could continue, experiencing more of the world’s natural beauty and the rainbow of human expression that dwells within it. But I need time before I do that, because another upheaval is due. I need to bring some things together that until now have been kept distant from each other. I need to remedy the ills that have begun to plague my experience. There is so much about this lifestyle that I truly love. But surely these simple and fascinating journeys might be even more satisfying if balanced with that rooted contentment I felt in Armenia, and the joy I find in reconstructing my experiences in words and sentences – writing a book, perhaps! – and, above all, that sense of sharing a direction in life that I felt next to Tenny? Is it possible, somehow, that I can forge a life that consists of all of these elements combined?
I have no idea. But I feel compelled to find out. And the prospect excites the hell out of me.
The desert falls into darkness, the last few cars audible from the road that runs through this ever-shifting sea of dunes.
In the morning, I get up early, wolf down some breakfast, and pack up my meagre belongings, eager to get some miles behind me before the sun rises to its infernal daytime heights. One more day of riding; one last sea-crossing. I am sure that this ferry journey to Iran will be far less memorable than the time I spent aboard the Sina, leaving Egypt behind for Sudan, bypassing the two nations’ political squabbles as we glided across the surface of Lake Nasser, watching the monolithic tombs of Abu Simbel drifting past at sunrise, eventually fetching up in Wadi Halfa – where I’d bought a reassuring amount of food and water and then pedalled south into the Nubian desert before could I change my mind.
There’s one more task that I must do before I set off, so I rummage for my video camera. Flipping open the tiny screen so that I can see myself, I grin with surprise. The familiar matted greasy hair has gone, replaced with a freshly trimmed head of hair that might even be described as smart. My beard has disappeared, subtracting a decade from my age. The bridge of my nose is still burnt deep red, of course, and my skin and clothes are still coated in a beige film of dust, sweat and grease, but I look ready for what lies ahead. My face, it seems, could tell my story on its own.
I adjust the camera to produce the best possible picture. The well-practised calibrations happen in an instant. Pressing the red button, I zoom in slightly and my mirror-image fills the frame: some guy, talking to a camera in the middle of a desert. I fold the screen back out of sight, fix my gaze on the dark circle of glass, open my mouth, and begin to speak.
I must continue telling this story.