When Things Go Wrong, How Do You React?

My six days in Khartoum had been somewhat surreal, to say the least.

Barging through the dark, dusty, unpaved back streets in a big white United Nations four-by-four, passing observers would have assumed me and my host to be rushing to assist in some nearby international crisis, unaware that we were actually trying to find the district’s only Chinese restaurant to get some fried noodles and a bowl of tofu soup…

In a quiet health club studio, incense candles burning, I giggled in embarrassed discomfort as a Thai woman inserted her elbows deep into my aching leg muscles. (My mirth was partly due to the sudden disturbance of my body’s equilibrium, and partly to the amusingly unorthodox manner of her massage…)

In the garden of a plush and spacious apartment, I sipped Johnny Red and listened to drunk aid workers complaining loudly against a backdrop of European pop music that there hadn’t been an underground house-party in nearly 2 months – until now – thanks to the recent ICC ruling and consequent backlash against the understandably-nervous international community…

I thought back to nights spent in mud-walled village houses, and under the stars in the open desert. Just down the road could be found another plane of existence altogether! Although it was insular and wanton compared to the life I’d been living the previous weeks, it wasn’t an entirely unpredictable state of affairs in which to find myself. Minority social groups exist everywhere, and Khartoum’s Western ex-pat community is just one example of foreigners clubbing together for solidarity in an unfamiliar world.

Carrying my trailer down to the street on the morning of my departure, I felt the muscles straddling my right kneecap tweak in protest. Great, I thought. Over the years, this had happened numerous times, with results of varying severity. Usually it just meant a sore knee for a couple of days and a comical gait when climbing stairs. But in the summer of 2007, long-term readers may remember, it had meant weeks off the bike. I wondered what I was in for this time as I stoically (and probably stupidly) pedalled south out of Khartoum regardless.

By the end of the day, the pain had become insistent. My right knee simply did not want to participate in any more crank-spinning. I had covered about ninety kilometres in varying degrees of discomfort. The nagging pain was exacerbated by the sun’s annoying habit of raising the daytime temperature to somewhere approaching fifty degrees Celsius. Additionally, my hat was too small, blew constantly off my head, and declared to the world that ‘I love Egypt’, which was not strictly true.

This would all have been tolerable but for the addition of heavy traffic on a narrow road with no hard shoulder. The tarmac was breaking up and I had to squint at the remains of my smashed rear-view mirror to spot the giant double-length lorries and petrol tankers before they careered past, horns blaring, often forcing oncoming drivers off the road altogether. Judging by their skilful evasive navigation, I got the impression that their truck-dodging was not altogether unusual.

Sometimes I pulled off the road and leaned motionless on my handlebars in a trance, trying to escape the heat, the wind and the roar of trucks and buses through the power of thought alone. It didn’t work. I could stand stupefied as long as I wanted, but sooner or later I would have to ride back into the fray.

The following lunchtime, my knee finally seized up and could only be straightened if accompanied by an agonizing clunk from deep within its workings. I realized that I was being a stubborn fool and that I was simply ignoring my body’s clear warning signals. I was developing a fixation with the concept of a pure, unimpeachable ‘bike ride’. I thought I had long ago liberated myself from this purist mindset. But my internal dialogue was becoming a monologue. I wasn’t challenging my own thinking enough.

With little more than two months of riding under my belt it was clear that I still had a lot to learn. And it was for this very learning process that I had set out on this section of my journey alone. Right now, I was learning a very important lesson about the way I evaluated my situation and made decisions with respect to my plans. So I dropped the façade of invincibility and loaded my bike onto the roof of the next bus to Gedaref.

Sitting on the bus and watching over two hundred kilometres of sun-baked scrubland trundle past, I remembered that there would in fact be parts of the world where the road would be simply too boring to make cycling worthwhile. Of course I am not averse to a challenge, when it is a fresh and interested one – it’s part of the fun! But I had already discovered that I was capable of riding a hundred miles a day through uninhabited infernos. Did I really need to know that I could do it with an injured leg as well?!?

I camped at the police checkpoint outside the town after eating what I dearly hoped was the last bowl of fuul I would ever see. Fuul, a mealy sludge of stewed beans which I have previously described in far more glowing terms, now holds the record for the meal I have eaten on more occasions than any other during the course of my life – with the possible exception of Weetabix – for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all kinds of unspecific junctures in between since I had first entered Syria back in January.

The following morning, my knee seemed to have made a recovery. I felt strong enough to tackle the last day or two of riding to Gallabat, the Sudanese border village. This was the finishing stretch to Ethiopia, with mountains and greenery and cool air as the prize. And after a little over two months traversing a diverse cross-section of Arabia, I was ready to move on.

So much about the Sudanese people made them a pleasure to spend time with – their good humour, the uncomplicated and laid-back nature of their hospitality, their devotion to the family life, to hard work when it was needed and no shortage of rest and social time in between.

But looking at the state of country they lived in made me feel sometimes sad, often indignant. The arrival of mobile-phone masts, studded intrusively through desert and river valley alike, meant that now even the crinkliest old Nubian on a donkey would have to have a shiny Nokia hiding somewhere amongst his robes. And the ubiquity of satellite TV renders huge portions of society susceptible to the distorted world-views cultivated by biased media and government propaganda.

Nothing illustrates this better than the events of a particular day on the streets of the capital. Standing outside a computer shop after yet another failed attempt to buy a replacement cable for my camera, I witnessed a passing pro-regime demonstration. Big dumper trucks roared past, overloaded with protestors waving flags depicting President al-Bashir in rowdy defiance of Western interference. Spotting a lone white face standing perplexed on the sidewalk, fingers and voices were suddenly directed at me! I was the one responsible for their political woes!!!

Vicious glares and gestures were the worst of my wounds. I wandered on, even more perplexed, to my favourite fast-food stand on the Blue Nile road. Perched on a wall with my lunch, I said a friendly hello to a middle-aged Sudanese man sitting close by.

We got chatting and it soon transpired that he was trying to obtain the last of three doses of a vaccine for rabies to administer to his baby daughter, who he told me had been bitten by a rabid cat. Unable to afford to buy the expensive shot from a private pharmacy, he had spent the morning walking between the offices of the World Health Organisation, numerous UN branches, and the French, Dutch and German Embassies, begging for someone from the wealthy, meddling West to sponsor or loan the money he needed for the medicine that would save the life of his infant child.

He ended the story by producing the empty vials that had contained the first two shots and asking me to come and see his dying daughter and pay for the vaccine myself. Through his desperation, he had unwittingly dumped me in a situation of hideous unfairness. I had only come for a burger and now I was being asked to take responsibility for the failures of a horrendous government to look after the lives of its people, by virtue of my having white skin and saying ‘hello’.

Despite feeling utterly terrible for his plight, my instinctive reaction was to dodge the charge he’d laid on me. Even had I the necessary funds, a substantial-enough ego to make a hero of myself, and sufficient ignorance to prolong a bad stereotype (of which three I possessed none), I wouldn’t have solved any problem other than that of the unfortunate man by the fast-food stand in Khartoum in early April 2009. But hours later, questions still gnawed at me. Could I have at least verified his story? Did I act wrongly? Was there blood on my hands? How could I untie these moral knots?

Let it be known that the people of Sudan are admirable for their resilience in the face of such huge periods of national instability and terrible leadership. The aid and development workers must also be commended for their struggle to provide assistance in a place where prejudice confounds their very presence. I can only hope that the future of Sudan is a brighter one, one in which relief from afar is not shunned on grounds of historical grudges, and one that the baby girl I never met will live to see.

The incident also resurrected a larger issue at hand, that of foreign aid and development work and of the Western tradition of ‘giving’ (of stuff/money) as the unquestioning solution to problems of poverty and need. Long before, I had resolved not to give money to those who perceived me as someone who had simply come to give it out. It’s like a cigarette to a smoker; a short-term filling for a long-term void. In the future, travels done and dusted, I would gladly lend my modest skills and time to the great problem-solving efforts of my culture, provided that they were thoughtfully directed with due consideration for the mistakes of the past. We can all contribute in our own small way, and indeed the future probably relies on this, now the days of individual heroics are passing. But this is probably a discussion for another time.

Back on the road to Ethiopia, the midday heat finally became unbearable. I had consumed fifteen litres of water that was almost too hot to drink. When the wind gusted, it was like opening the door to a pre-heated fan oven and forgetting to stand aside. Sweat evaporated before the beads had had time to form on my skin. I rode for miles with one hand for steering and the other for drinking. I dreamed of elaborate contraptions involving rubber hoses, cable ties and vast reservoirs of water in my trailer. But at the end of the day, I still had a dry mouth and a headache from dehydration.

I continued into the darkness, hoping the heat would subside. Alas, as the sun sank, the new tarmac road began to release all the heat it had spent the day absorbing. I admitted defeat after a hundred and ten of the hottest kilometres I’m ever likely to ride, and pulled off the hot road to camp. I opened my hot dry-bags and rolled out my hot groundsheet on the hot ground. Hanging my hot mosquito net from my hot handlebars, I took a last gulp of hot water and lay down on my hot air-mattress in the hot night air. I was naked, exhausted, dehydrated, and ever so slightly hot.

Blissfully draining a bottle of ice-cold Sprite upon arrival in Gallabat, I remembered that I had failed to register my visa on arrival in Sudan; by all accounts an unfathomable and elongated exercise in pointless bureaucracy that costs forty dollars and a day of one’s time to negotiate. They had told me at Halfa that they had ‘run out of blue stamps’, though yellow and white forms and pink folders were apparently still in stock. I was told to register in Dongola or Khartoum, which I conveniently forgot to do. I had also filmed and photographed my way through Sudan, conveniently forgetting to obtain ‘permits’ for either exercise.

As I had predicted, nobody at the border gave a damn as I exited Sudan forty dollars richer than I’d expected and crossed the crowded little bridge into the Ethiopian village of Metema. In the space of twenty metres I seamlessly switched universes.

The road led straight up a hill lined on either side with a ramshackle collection of squat tin-roofed buildings, built out of wonky timbers and colourful plastic sheeting, both street and buildings crammed full of men and – I had almost forgotten what they looked like – un-veiled, un-cloaked women! Interacting in public! People, everywhere, watching for customers, drinking tea, sitting in the shade, eating spaghetti, driving rickshaws, thwacking donkeys’ backsides, playing exotic-sounding music from deep within darkened hovels, baking bread, changing money, shouting and jostling and generally being suddenly and delightfully rowdy and plentiful. This was what I’d been looking forward to; this was the thought that had kept me riding through the inferno – somewhere completely fresh!

At the immigration office I met a bearded Austrian backpacker on his way to Sudan, and we decided to stay the night and swap information over a glass or two of avocado and mango juice. Waking the following morning with a terrible pain in my calves, a reappearance of the soreness in my knees, and a suspicious fever, I decided to go for a prudent blood test at the local clinic.

“Come with me”, beckoned Dr. Nega a couple of hours later. We rounded the corner into the yard and ducked through the tiny doorway. He sat down at the desk in his cramped office and indicated for me to do the same. I sat.

“You have malaria.”

These really aren’t words that any traveller wants to hear. I had just shared breakfast with the Doctor at a neighbouring restaurant, where I had watched roving chickens pecking at pieces of dropped scrambled egg by my feet, evidently unaware of their cannibalism. I’d then waited anxiously in the clinic’s reception for the results of the blood analysis, gazing at the well-stocked pharmacy shelves and the posters demonstrating the purpose and use of condoms, before Dr. Nega had reappeared to break the news.

The big medical textbook flopped open with a thud and I had a good look through the various stages of P. vivax morphology. I paused to reflect on the remarkable fact that I was not actually particularly worried. I had detected the symptoms early and knew they were easily treatable. Since leaving Khartoum I’d visited my physical and mental limits and had a very good peep over the edge. Hearing, upon entering Ethiopia, that I’d contracted the world’s biggest killer was clearly the natural way to round off my week!

And so I smiled weakly at the seeming inevitability of it all, thanked my host, picked up my three-day course of medication and started to hobble back to my hotel, wondering when if and when my sudden run of bad health would change.

The journey recounted in this archived post is now the subject of the award-winning documentary film Janapar: Love, on a Bike.

Click here to watch the trailer in a new tab →

6 Responses to “When Things Go Wrong, How Do You React?”

  1. Liz Allen

    This is not the sort of thing a mother wants to read! Take care. You are always in our thoughts.
    Lots of love mum xxxxx

    Reply
  2. seamus

    Fantastic read! Hope the drugs work and you back on the bike soon.

    Seamus

    Reply
  3. Tom

    …before anyone starts to worry, I made a full recovery… 🙂

    Reply
  4. Simon

    One of your best written blogs to-date, brilliant ….we had the same poverty dilema in Mozambique, did we get it right as well – I still don't know. God bless

    Reply
  5. TravelWriting

    Wow – I agree with simon (brilliantly written) post. It took me quite a while to read thru it with all of the daily non-stop interruptions I have to contend with, but well worth the time invested to [start-stop-backup-restart-etc) get all the way through. When you can write about misfortune in such a way that it makes other people want to be there with you despite the pain, heat, bad food, attempted emotional blackmail, dust, and possibly dying of infection in a third-world country, you know that's good writing. Funny, it did sort of make me want to go on such a grand adventure, and I don't even like bicycling (except for short trips – it makes my butt hurt). I'll look forward to reading more!

    Reply
  6. liz allen

    P.S. After my initial reaction (maternal!) I think this blog is a brilliant piece of writing – captivating, thought provoking, reflective, heart rending…………………………
    Hope it goes well for you on the next phase.

    Reply

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