I rediscover the glory of fresh fruit juice, abundant in Egypt but missing in the parched deserts of Sudan. Mango, orange and pale green avocado puree are the staple beverages here. I happen upon the quite heavenly combination of mango and avocado together in the same glass, and, with my new friend and fellow hotel resident Mike, we brave a twice-daily road-crossing to this little eatery, where we gobble endless plates of spicy spaghetti Bolognese, washed down with freshly blended fruit.
Mike is not a scavenger; he’s a well-educated and ambitious private-school teacher from Addis Ababa. He’s waiting for a colleague to arrive before travelling on to Khartoum, where he teaches the children of the well-heeled in the city’s international school. Heavily built but smartly dressed, with an impermeable smile, he’s as gentle as a lamb, despite his reservations about returning to Khartoum for another two-year contract. Having returned to Addis after his previous contract carrying savings totalling several years’ local salary, his family had grabbed the sudden windfall and blown it all at once, leaving him with no choice but to head once again to Sudan to earn yet more money to keep his lazy, selfish relatives lazy and selfish.
‘I can honestly say that they have ruined my life,’ he says, sitting on the concrete outside my room as I offer him a serving of tea in the cut-off bottom half of an old water bottle. And then he breaks into a trademark laugh – long, wobbling, and from the belly. His eyes are already glazed over, cheeks full of the narcotic leaves known across tropical East Africa and Arabia as qat.
‘It makes everything in the world look OK,’ he says through a mouthful of little green flecks, ‘. . . when really, it’s not!!!’ Another belly laugh.
Mike had been an aspiring screenwriter, a hopeful creative mind in the big city. But he’d soon discovered that Ethiopia’s film industry simply didn’t exist. There was no money, neither to earn nor borrow, in order to fund it. So he forgot about building something; there were no foundations upon which to build. He forgot about travelling to Hollywood, or even Nollywood; immigration laws, he’d found, were not designed to favour the African on the street. And so he’d quietly dropped his ambitions and taken the only work he could find. At least, he says, teaching is a relatively noble and well-paid profession, even if it isn’t quite what he’d dreamed of.
There’s one big difference between me and Mike. I had the choice to follow my dream, when he did not.
If riding gave me too much thinking time, being holed up in a tin-roofed mud hut with malaria is a recipe for insanity. But it’s the other people in my life I’m more concerned about. The ones I left behind. How would they feel if they could see me now, sweating and feverish, knowing there was nothing they could do to help? I thought about my parents, back in long-forgotten England. I thought about my best mate Andy, who by now must be somewhere in India, or perhaps Nepal. And I thought about the girl who crossed my path in Armenia, for whom I made so many sacrifices, and who I left in tears in order to do this. What if I never get to see her again?
I won’t tell her about the malaria. Not until it’s passed into the canon of travellers’ tales. And I can think of nothing but her, as I lie in the hotel-brothel. Outside in the yard, the matriarch haggles with Herculean force over the price of a soft-drink delivery. Another resident slouches on a mattress beneath a papaya tree, fiddling with a mobile phone. And I lie on the bed, thinking about our story together, about that chance meeting in an Irish pub on Valentine’s Day where it began – and all because of a sponsored sleeping-bag.
‘Tom?’ The voice crackled in my ear.
‘Hey, Artur! What’s happening tonight?’
‘So – I have one friend who is organising some Valentine’s party. It’s at Cheers. You remember Cheers, I think?’
I laughed. ‘Yeah, I remember. Just about.’
‘Anyway, I’m thinking I will go to this party there, later tonight. If you want to join?’
I had met Artur some days previously at a gathering in the home of the young Italian volunteers who were hosting me in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. He was a native of the country, about my age, who had shunned the status quo and now kept a big mix of company – European volunteers and NGO workers posted to Yerevan; Westerners of Armenian descent who’d floated to Armenia on dreams of some lost homeland; and the country’s own hippies, eco-warriors, vegetarians and cyclists; all of whom drifted together into an eddy marked ‘outsiders’ that I was very happy to find myself occupying.
Artur was serious, almost military-looking, with close-cropped black hair and a matching beard, but behind it was a calm and softly spoken character. He was unnaturally thin, to an extent that you’d imagine would make it difficult for him to lift himself out of bed. His clothes always hung baggily from the corners of his frame, full of air, as if he were a life-sized puppet. Yet there was nothing lethargic or clumsy about Artur – instead, he exuded vitality, as if all that fat and muscle that the rest of us had was just unnecessary baggage, weighing us down and stilting our actions. Artur would dart and sweep through the streets, like a bike messenger in traffic, then melt into the shadows and simply exist there, observing, scanning the crowds and surroundings for some moment of beauty or intrigue or irony.
He would rarely be seen without one of his collection of ancient cameras. Despite never appearing to take any photos with them, he in fact had a habit of constantly capturing images – only he took them when nobody realised he was doing so, until a few days later when the resulting prints appeared, catching the subject off-guard. And, like an artist who can capture the essence of someone’s soul with a few strokes of pencil lead, the photos he developed seemed to contain nothing at all, yet at the same time miniature universes.
Artur’s unique perspective on the world made for interesting company. So when he suggested heading to a party on the evening of St. Valentine’s Day, I didn’t hesitate to agree. I was free, and I was single, and I was preparing to leave Yerevan for the next stage of my journey – this time, alone.
After eight weeks, the scars on my face were slowly beginning to heal, though I imagined that a faint souvenir of the event would remain beneath the hair of my eyebrow for the rest of my life. Even before I’d left the scene of the accident on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, I’d quietly quashed the idea that anything mattered except for my most immediate circumstances, least of all Ride Earth. Time had proved that prediction and planning made no real sense. This life was not a business, or a holiday, or an event, with some big, abstract idea floating above it. It was a guy, on a bicycle, somewhere, with the stuff in his bags, and the thoughts in his head. And that was it.
Andy had arrived at the hospital with the police while I’d been having the stitches put in above my right eye, and had gathered all of our belongings and convinced the authorities to put us up in a hotel for the night. The following morning, I’d decided that I’d try cycling tentatively onwards. My face was in agony; my right eye closed up and patched over with a dressing, my left eye swollen and purple. I’d had a deep, throbbing pain in the centre of my forehead, and I’d blacked out twice that morning. But it was Christmas Eve, and the border, after all, was only a few miles away. And that afternoon, at the border-crossing, I discovered that Georgia’s version of Christianity was an Orthodox one, and that Christmas would not be taking place until the seventh of January.
Meeting another bicycle traveller in the seaside resort town of Batumi absolved me from any further decision-making. Having ridden alone from the Arctic Circle of Scandinavia, Marek proposed we ride the three hundred miles through the snowy interior of Georgia to Tbilisi together in four days in order to celebrate New Year in the capital. Andy had agreed enthusiastically with the Polish cyclist’s plan, and I was happy to fall in. And as soon as we arrived in Tbilisi, having seen almost nothing of Georgia, I drifted off, met new people and made different friends. Days passed during which I neither saw nor spoke to Andy at all; he disappeared from my life and embarked upon another shadowy romance – this time with a French girl we’d met on New Year’s Eve. It was exactly the break I’d needed. But – again – it made leaving the city quite difficult.
On the morning of our planned departure, I sat down at our host’s kitchen table. The house was empty, and, finding myself once again with nobody else to talk to, I began to confide in the lens of my video camera.
Today, erm, we are going to leave – well, I’m going to leave. I don’t know where Andy is. He’s found a distraction – he’s basically got involved with a girl, and he’s let it basically rule his rule his life for the last couple of days. And he hasn’t really been thinking about anything else, so . . .basically I wanted to leave yesterday, and I would have done if – if he’d been here to pack up and to go. And today we arranged that we’d leave in the morning; last night he didn’t come back, and this morning it’s already gone eleven o’clock in the morning and there’s no sign of him, so . . .
What do I do? Do I just wait around, and waste more time and money, because, er . . . he . . . because he can’t see the consequences of his actions? I don’t know. I might just go off on my own, tell him which way I’m going – tell him to catch me up, and that I’ll see him on the road.
It’s snowing again. There’s no delaying the leaving any longer. When we do leave, it’s going to be bloody cold, and it’s going to be very difficult. You can’t get away from it, you’ve just got to face it, and get on with it. I’m looking forward to the challenge, myself; I want to get my teeth into it, and go – get out on my bike – now.
I want to finish my porridge, get on my bike, and leave.
Andy had reappeared the following day. I hadn’t enquired, he hadn’t explained, and we’d set out through the mountains towards Armenia, crossing the border the following morning on the snowy mountain road to Iran, with less to say to each other than ever before. We’d collected our visas to enter Iran during the three-week layover in Tbilisi, and we would finally collect two brand-new winter sleeping-bags. Having given up altogether on the useless sponsor, my mother had driven to an outdoor shop in Milton Keynes and posted the two sleeping-bags she’d bought to a contact in Yerevan.
And rather than on amicable terms and under sensible circumstances, it was on the second day in Armenia, halfway up a long climb in the freezing winter sun, that my journey with Andy would come to an end.
‘Waiting for you,’ he said as I pulled up behind him, ‘is really starting to grate.’
This, I knew, was a prelude to what Andy really wanted to say. He’d never been one to express his emotions in a straightforward way – not about our early bickering, not about girls, not about the escalating arguments in Turkey. The feeling was always hidden behind vagaries, taking pressure and mediation to come forth, or was never communicated at all. He’d been thinking about this for some time, and, looking for an excuse to justify cutting the rope, had used a thinly veiled nod towards my inferior fitness, knowing that five thousand miles of cycling hadn’t closed the gap. I found myself suddenly annoyed by Andy and his idiosyncrasies. Why could he never just say it? Spit it out!
And at the same time, I knew that I’d been waiting for him to do this, because I could not. Though I’d made noises about leaving Tbilisi without him, I was unable to say it to his face. I was paralysed by pride, immobilised in the face of the inevitable. Was I equally guilty of this indirectness; this inability to communicate my concerns?
He continued cycling, pulling ahead quickly. I followed at my own pace, and a few minutes later I caught sight of him talking to the driver of a stopped car on the road ahead. The car pulled away, and he turned and began freewheeling slowly towards me, stopping on the roadside opposite me in the shadow of the white mountainside. Finally.
‘Erm – I’m going carry on to Yerevan on my own,’ he said. ‘I think it’ll be kind of a good experience for both of us, to . . . to see what cycling alone is like, and stuff.’
‘So I’ll give you half of the money, and half of the food – whatever’s left, anyway?’
‘That driver said he could help us out in the next village.’
‘Oh . . . ?’
‘Here you are, then.’ Andy offered me a torn-off piece of paper with an indecipherable phrase written on it.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s the address of a shop where he said we can go and eat.’
‘Obviously I’ve tried to copy it as best I possibly can.’
‘OK. Well,’ I said slowly, ‘it’s kind of your adventure now, so . . . I probably won’t see you there.’
‘Right . . .’ he replied. A moment of uncertainty flashed across his face. ‘I’ll . . . see you in Yerevan, then.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘OK – see you later.’ It was as if he was stepping away from the doorstep of my house in Middleton.
‘Good luck,’ I added.
‘Yeah, you too.’
I held out a hand. He shook it, mounted his bike, wobbled into the road, turned uphill and began to pedal. His legs span quickly, yet – in first gear – he edged away with comical slowness, wiping his nose with a ski glove, sniffing in the cold air. Then he was further off, weaving gradually along the icy roadside, his breath still visible in the sun; my best mate Andy, tall, lean and broad-shouldered, trusty old blue and silver helmet strapped to his bushy head of hair, cargo trailer close to bursting with sacks of equipment, pedalling silently into a future entirely his own.
Andy had done something brave. He had acknowledged that the time had come to take action. And – even if he hadn’t said all that could have been said – at least he’d done it. He had done what I was too stubborn and afraid to do myself.
As the solitary figure disappeared round the bend in the distance, I felt a kind of crazed elation, as if someone had just thrown open all the windows on a windy autumn day, letting all of the world into a stuffy space that had been closed off for too long. A mere speck on a bare white hillside, I could be anyone right now – do anything at all! I could change my name, fabricate a new personality out of thin air, and nobody would have the slightest idea who I really was as I passed into and out of their lives. I could get on a plane to the other side of the planet, disappearing from sight completely, leaving the Ride Earth website to fester and my email account to fill up with unanswered messages. And it wouldn’t matter one bit, because the last remaining thread of my previous existence had just been cut away.
More than two years would pass before Andy and I would next travel together by bicycle.