One of Wawa’s elders arrives to share a meal with me and my hosts. The meal waltzes into the room on a metal tray balanced on a small boy’s head. It contains dishes of stewed beans with cumin, lemon, onion, hot pepper and oil; bowls of green bean and tomato stew; a kind of bread rather like a huge, thick and dense pancake; and another thinner bread like a crepe. In typical Middle Eastern style, the bread serves a dual purpose as cutlery, and we sit on the floor in a circle around the tray, digging dollops of stew from the bowls with segments of bread folded into miniature edible shovels. Pasta arrives as a late addition to the spread –having no cultural compass for the dried macaroni recently brought in by the village store, our mystery chef has boiled it up with sugar and served it as a dessert!
After the meal, the white-haired Nubian tries to explain something to me, pointing to my stomach, but I cannot understand what he means. Everyone scrabbles around for a way of being understood, and quickly Nashradeen remembers the English word:
He points at the old man.
‘Doctor?’ I reply. ‘Oh … good?’
This must have been taken as an agreement, because a mood of preparation suddenly sweeps over the room. The tray is taken away and a chair is located for me to sit on. I’m told to roll up my trousers, and while I do so the doctor hands a banknote and an instruction to the tray-bearing child, stands up and goes outside. I hear running water and hands being washed. The boy dashes off, returning a few minutes later with the change and a tiny shrink-wrapped package. As the doctor unwraps the little box in front of me, I realise that whatever I have agreed to involves a packet of razorblades.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the doctor removes the folded paper wrapping from a shiny sliver of metal and begins to calmly slash at my legs. I barely register what’s happening until I notice the blood, because there is no pain. But the blood is definitely coming now. With practised strokes, gentle but firm, the old man crosshatches my calves with fine red lines, giving the muscles a good squeeze to get the blood flowing. I flit from horror to bewilderment to amusement in a matter of seconds, ashamed to admit that the word ‘AIDS’ flashes before my eyes, despite the fact that the razors are new, and the villagers are trying to heal my illness, not to hurt me. It’s as if the great incurable disease is tattooed across Africa’s forehead, so that I can’t think of one without the other coming to mind. This bloodletting might cure my stomach, but it also reminds me that I might still harbour a few unhealthy stereotypes.
The events of the day also serve to remind me of the line that I can never cross. It’s the line between what I can communicate and what I want to express. Were I able to speak Arabic or Nubian, there would be so much to tell these people. I’d be able to point out the funny mix-up with the pasta. I’d be able to ask them all the questions I have about the way things are in this village. I’d be able to find out what they make of the country’s politics. And I’d be able to answer questions about myself, about where I came from, what it was like to live in England, why I ended up in Africa instead of India or Australia. I’d be able to tell them about the girl whose photo I keep in my diary, and about the other times I got sick and why it seemed so much more difficult to deal with – why so much weight seemed attached to those very human attributes of weakness and mortality.
It had started, in fact, as early as Vienna, as we’d followed the last traces of the Danube Cycleway. The pain, a nagging twinge of discomfort, originated somewhere under the top edge of my right kneecap, and accompanied each pedal stroke, starting as a tiny sensation but deepening until I could think of little else. The health of my body was critical to the journey. And this was not just an ache of tiredness.
I ignored it. I didn’t mention it. Stubbornness cured everything. The pain subsided with Mark’s departure, and after a few days of rest in Budapest I struck forth with Andy towards Romania. We hadn’t even made it beyond the city limits before the pain resurfaced, worse than before, each pedal stroke more and more agonising until I had no choice but to stop. I sat on the roadside beneath a gigantic billboard. Traffic barged past as I held my head in my hands, gutted by the realisation that this was probably the beginning of a significant amount of time off the bike, and – as much as I detested the idea – I should probably find a doctor.
Our host, Laszlo, was sympathetic.
‘You guys can stay here as long as you like,’ he said. ‘Don’t feel that you should hurry to leave. I’m going to be away for the winter, but I’d happily leave you guys to look after The Place for a few months while I’m gone. You’re the kind of travellers I know I can trust with something like that.’
Just when we needed it most – the offer of a place to live in the outlying suburbs of Budapest; no rent, no fuss, no expectations other than to look after the place and take responsibility for ourselves while we were there. I’d known Laszlo less than a week, but he didn’t attach much importance to the idea of carefully building trust, preferring to assume everyone equally good at heart. Leaving his home permanently open, key in door and welcome note on the table, was testament enough to that.
Laszlo was a member of a movement called Couchsurfing; an Internet-based hospitality exchange network that already spanned the globe and was growing in popularity. The website took the idea of relying on the hospitality of complete strangers and formalised the process, rather than leaving it up to chance. We’d heard about it back in Vienna, and I’d thought the idea revolutionary. A quick search for hosts in Budapest had turned up a man who lived in a yurt with his turtles, and seemed to have an unending stream of recommendations from other Couchsurfers who’d stayed there on their way through Eastern Europe. And so we’d found ourselves navigating the backstreets of suburbia in the dead of night, the resident guard dog population a frenzy of surround-sound barking, and we’d eventually found the famous yurt-dwelling Hungarian entertaining a group of sleepy travellers around a campfire on the lawn. Flopping down by the fire, he’d handed each of us a piece of salted pig fat on the end of a stick.
‘Welcome to The Place, guys.’
And he’d continued telling the story while we’d toasted the delicious fat over the glowing embers, catching the dripping grease with hunks of bread.
‘Aren’t you worried that people might steal things?’ I’d asked the next day.
‘The way I see it,’ he’d explained, ‘if someone takes something from here, they must need it – otherwise why would they take it? And who am I to argue if somebody needs something? They’ll probably make just as good use of that thing than me.’
His possessions were thin on the ground – a shelf full of books on philosophy and climbing and little-known cultures, an old computer in the corner, a few pans, and a Mongolian yurt full of Buddhist ornaments which could hardly be a particularly big target for the criminal masterminds of Budapest. Laszlo seemed to live as a traveller in his own home; owning only the bare essentials, sharing his life with others and encouraging them to do the same with him, embracing whatever might come of it. On the odd occasion when he did need some money, he simply found large corporate sponsors to fund high-profile attempts on the summits of the world’s highest peaks. He was, after all, one of Hungary’s foremost high-altitude mountaineers.
I’d never considered that the traveller’s approach might be applied to a more stable existence. I hadn’t realised that life could consist of anything other than either an unhealthy amount of work interspersed with brief periods of free time (like everyone I knew back home) or a lengthy escape abroad with a bit of cash in the bank (like me and Andy). Yet here was a man for whom time was the only real currency; an asset of immeasurable value, to invest carefully and wisely.
I made a foray into the city centre, carrying a cardboard box, which contained everything that hadn’t passed the usefulness test: the so-called waterproof socks, my heavy watch, hiking maps for most of Western Europe, a handbook entitled Pocket Mountain-Bike Maintenance. Then I bit the bullet and paid an expensive visit to a knee specialist at a sports-injury clinic that Laszlo had recommended. I explained my new lifestyle to the doctor as he pushed and pulled at the tender joint.
‘It’s almost definitely an overuse injury,’ he said, finally. ‘The cartilage under the kneecap has been worn down by repetitive movement. So if you’re cycling every day, the first thing I would do is to look at your riding position – the height of your saddle, the angle of your pedals. If something out of alignment, it’ll be magnified by repetitive exercise.’
‘I’m going to give you something to help the cartilage regrow. It’s a powder, so you’ll need to mix it with water and drink it once a day. And, of course, you’ll need to rest.’
‘How long for?’ I asked, expecting the worst.
‘Oh – two weeks, at least. Maybe three.’
Summer lingered on, so being stuck with Laszlo was hardly a chore. Travellers came and went, and as two weeks approached we all decided that a night on the town was in order. In a rooftop bar, accessible only by a hair-raising elevator ride through the innards of a dingy socialist-era city block, I met Maria and Magalie, two rosy-cheeked backpackers who were supposed to be returning with us to Laszlo’s place. They were curious to know how we’d got there, and I prepared myself for another round of predictable questions.
‘You’re cycling?!’ exclaimed Magalie. ‘Oh my god …’
And her distinctive South London twang brought a flood of nostalgia, reminding me how long it had been since I’d heard anyone other than Mark and Andy speak with a colloquial English accent.
‘That actually sounds like really good fun!’ joined in Maria.
‘And I thought we were being adventurous, hitching around Europe …’
‘Yeah, well, cycling’s pretty cool,’ I told them. Then – why not? – ‘Maybe you should give it a try?’
‘Yeah, right – I would never be able to do that!’
‘I think you would, actually,’ I said, the beer adding to my conviction.
‘Oh, come on. Look at us!’
‘Yeah, you’d be fine – all you need is a bike. You’ve got your other stuff, right?’
‘Mmm … I think I’ll stick to backpacking! But … oh my god, I’m actually tempted … Maria, what d’you reckon?’
A sizeable quantity of beer later, Maria and Magalie were making plans to come with us. It would make far more sense than train-hopping around Eastern Europe. Where was the fun in that? Missing out on all the good bits? Sleeping in expensive hostels and paying through the nose for city attractions every day? Cycling was as easy as pie – heck, if these two jokers could do it, anyone could! Why not give it a go?
What had I done?
The next morning, the four of us walked a couple of blocks from Laszlo’s to the local scrap-yard where we unearthed a large pile of vintage city bikes. Andy cast his eye over them and selected two. At the same time, I noticed a full-size adult scooter with big bicycle-sized wheels and a solid platform on which to stand whilst pushing the contraption along. If my knee injury resurfaced again, I decided, I would buy the second-hand scooter and continue my journey alone, making the first known transcontinental scooter journey in the process. But my knee had felt much better during the last week, and I decided that the time was ripe to give cycling another go.
We paid thirty euros for the bikes, took them back to the yurt, and the girls went off to the station to cash in their remaining train tickets. The horizon opened up once again, and the story took on a new tint: Ride Earth, new and improved, was back on the road.