From the southern city of Salalah I planned to ride through Oman towards the UAE. Arriving late at night in a new city is never fun when you’re travelling with a pushbike, and I had the added hindrance of being entirely unfamiliar with what made Oman tick.
The streets were surprisingly busy with pedestrians at this late hour, even though traffic was light, and I realised that it was Friday night. Groups of friends and families strolled peacefully along attractive boulevards and through magnanimous public gardens. The buildings were modern yet traditionally styled, and carefully designed and built to create a pleasant, homogenous, spacious environment. This was complemented by all the superficial gloss you would expect to find in a wealthy Western country.
I walked through the quiet warmth of the evening, drinking it all in. It was amazingly refreshing after travelling unthinkingly through months of squalour. And to think I’d previously lumped Yemen and Oman together in my mind!
The air was humid and somewhat stifling. I needed sleep, but the 40-dollar hotel nearby was out of my price range. I wandered for a couple of hours, tried and failed to cycle through the KFC drive-thru for a much-needed meal, and after a vain and foolish attempt to sleep in the corner of a car park, I sneaked through a gap in a hedge by a large dual carriageway and found myself in a concealed strip of wasteland. I was entirely lost, but instinctively I knew that this would be a safe place to camp
After four hours lying drenched in my own sweat in the hot, ill-ventilated confines of my tent, I exited my hidden camping spot as the first light crept into the sky. The humidity was still extreme. Sweat ran down my body and soaked my clothes, even at 5:30am. Salalah was feverishly anticipating the onset of the annual monsoon season, which people continually reminded me would begin in three or four weeks. The unplanned brevity of my stay in Yemen had thrown my schedule forward by several weeks, and now I found myself in Salalah at precisely the hottest and most humid time of year – just before tourists from all over the Gulf descended upon the city to enjoy the Khareef festival. Strange that Gulf residents take their holidays to escape the beating sun for the cool, refreshing rain, whereas we sun-starved Europeans tend to do exactly the opposite!
The humid air continued to make riding a sticky, clammy chore as I headed out of the city. I wanted to spend a few days exploring the coastal region to the north-east of Salalah. This was a dead-end for onward travel to Muscat as there was no through road along the mountainous coastline; I planned to hitch-hike back to Salalah after a few days. I spent a pleasant night camped on a huge empty beach before meeting some local fishermen in the nearby town of Mirbat and sharing a couple of fantastic meals of fresh tuna and rice.
My plans were thwarted the following day when my trailer attachment unexpectedly snapped clean in two. With no horizontal tension, this rendered my bike unrideable. I was alone in the unbearable scorching heat and humidity of midday, hours of riding from the nearest town.
I began to think about what to do next. And, as sometimes happens on long, lonely journeys, my thoughts unexpectedly travelled back through the last few stressful weeks, along the beautiful but forbidden roads of south Yemen, into the eerie mountains, and back across the Gulf of Aden to the continent of Africa. I’d begun to dig deeper at just the same time as I left it all behind. I had relished the freshness of Sudan and Ethiopia, the sun and the birdsong and the colours and the rawness of life. It was so unfamiliar, yet it tugged powerfully at some lost instinct.
But I’d taken a sharp left and slipped back into the well-oiled machine of prosperity, where every decision had already been made, where relationships were made with faceless abstractions and cleanly-drawn lines and strings were pulled from hidden palaces to make the show dance happily, repetitively along. I no longer felt the excitement of the great unknown before me. I’d been going through the motions for several days just to get to here, and I suddenly found myself in a place I quite simply no longer wanted to be.
Yes, I could meet lovely people and spend time with them, forgetting about the journey ahead. I could force myself to pedal across a thousand kilometres of desert to Muscat, through the heat, the wind and the sand, driven onwards by the thought of a thousand underworlds to explore in a capital city. And still surrounding me, despite my best efforts to dislodge it, was the box I’d put myself in three years previously when I’d summed up my life’s objective to all and sundry in the neat, pleasing sound of the phrase “I’m going to cycle round the world”.
If there’s one thing I regret since the moment my journey was concieved, it was the way Andy and I packaged the whole thing in our minds and to all our friends, families and sponsors. It quietly put a comforting yet infinitely restrictive cordon around the freedom of bicycle travel. I have written before about this problem, and I can trace it back to the society from which I came – one in which information drives life. Some of us sit at our computers, endlessly exchanging links to photos and articles with more links to more articles which we read and link to and exchange with others. Knowledge is king, even if it only exists in the mind, and even if the mind is part of a weak, immobile body.
We go to school and are fed a scientifically-chosen menu of information nuggets, which we regurgitate for better or worse in examinations and swap the results for further knowledge menus or jobs. Our goverment parades its figures and graphs like a bird of paradise strutting his stuff in an empty glade. Our daily lives are set against a backdrop of news and gossip about the events of distant lands and the lives of people we’ve never met. We define the fulfilment of our needs in terms of its brand name, not in terms of its function.
With these institutional satellites ever orbiting our minds, it’s going to take an asteroid-sized jolt to break free of it. Popular philosophy bangs on about how time is an illusion, how the only moment that really exists is the present, and this manifests in society in the ‘live for the moment’ motto and the various levels of self-indulgence that its adherents display. But ‘if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail’, in the words of another well-worn idiom. It’s easy to stick to the extremes, but striking the right balance is perhaps the greatest challenge.
This was the challenge I was battling with on that empty roadside – to carry on riding because I said I would, or to make a more immediate choice not to and risk being dismissed as a quitter. I was well aware that I had a considerable audience to please, but at the same time it was clear to me that riding here and now for its own sake would be an exercise in fruitless endurance. I’d already successfully crossed a desert far bigger, harder, hotter and emptier than this. I’d spent many very difficult weeks riding the worst roads in the world up some of the highest mountains and steepest gradients on the African continent. At the time, the challenge was fresh and therefore interesting and rewarding to see through to the end, but I was under no obligation to put myself through a diluted version of it again just so I could draw a wiggly line on a map years later and say “I cycled all of this”. I understood that no matter how hard I tried to describe the journey, no matter how many photographs I took, the experience itself would only ever be mine.
Vast inequalities exist in the world today. By an accident of birth, I held all the trump cards. With a British passport and a couple of grand in the bank, the world was my oyster. I was free and rich. The people amongst whom I’d spent the last few months were locked in the cage of poverty, the hope of travel or a better life elsewhere a long-forgotten dream. But right then, I wanted more than ever to ride to the nearest airport and fly home in time for tea. It would be so bloody easy.
The next morning I was in Muscat, one thousand and twenty-six kilometres away from Salalah in the north-east of Oman. My emotional instability had temporarily paralysed my bike ride. The port of Dubai lay six hundred kilometres to the west, and I would have to dig deep to relocate the drive that had brought me this far if I was going to ride there.
I never expected this to be an easy ride. And I have not been disappointed.