Mokha isn’t my ideal destination, but it ends up being the first available boat ride. The port once gave its name to a variety of coffee bean which was exported from its harbours before more profitable crops like qat took prominence in Yemen. Five crewmen, a handful of passengers and six hundred cows watch the twinkling lights of this port float towards us through the darkness, and suddenly – as if to welcome our humble vessel – a firework display bursts into life above the faraway string of streetlights. I’m transfixed by the pink and green airbursts, the rockets and screamers, the pair of high-velocity missiles that blast diagonally across the sky …
What the hell did I just see?!?
I look at the young Somali man next to me who is also watching the display, and he stares pointedly at me, shaking his head almost imperceptibly:
‘Don’t ask any questions. You didn’t see what you just saw.’
Which means I didn’t see two sudden streaks of flame across the night from within the little pyrotechnic display, disappearing out of sight and into orbit within a split second. Which means the fireworks weren’t there to distract any onlookers in Mokha from a covert missile launch!
The sensation of being in a Hollywood spy movie intensifies as I watch everyone else lug huge bags and chests towards the gangways in preparation for arrival, as if nothing has happened. If I’d found myself the sole witness I would be more inclined to put it down to a sleep-deprived half-dream or hallucination. But the Somali is still gazing into the distance, perplexed. And then we’re coming into the port and suddenly it’s a race to unload six hundred cows before everything gets covered in poo. I dutifully forget what I’ve seen, and never mention it again.
By the time I’ve made it past the little customs house, emptied and repacked my bags, and had my passport stamped in for a three-month visit, the rest of the passengers have long since bundled into taxis or pick-ups and scarpered. Entirely alone in a new country – continent, in fact – all over again, and exhausted from almost two days on the trot without sleep, I pedal down the nearest dark road and drag my bike through the soft sand behind a few crescent dunes. I somehow muster the energy to ramble into the video camera for a few seconds and then fall asleep as soon as the inner tent is up, too tired even to peg out the corners, let alone find my mattress or sleeping-bag, reduced to a snoring pile of sweaty limbs on a nylon groundsheet – neither knowing nor caring what my first day in Yemen will bring.
I’m in … I’m in Yemen.
And I’m in my tent about one kilometre from the security gates at the port.
It’s completely dark, apart from the moon …
I have no idea what this country’s going to be like at all. I have no idea, really, how things work. But basically I’ve just hidden beside some trees on the side of … in the sand on the side of the road. And hopefully here is safe enough, and hidden enough, to be able to rest for the rest of the night.
It’s been a very, very exhausting week. Tomorrow I’m going to get my bearings and work out what my route is going to be, and just see how things work, I guess. Because I don’t have any prior knowledge of Yemen. I don’t have a map, or a guidebook, as usual, so I’m just going to go off and see what happens.
Well – I have a small idea of what it’s going to be like, because it’s another Arab nation. And the hospitality here is very welcome for a traveller, especially if you’re travelling alone, because you’re never far away from a helpful smiling face. Even if it is – one hundred percent of the time – a male face!
The landscape is pretty dramatic, too. The most similar place I can remember was the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, or parts of Jordan and Syria. How long ago was that … ?
Syria didn’t really look like I’d pictured it. But then nowhere ever quite did.
I had left Tenny and Iran behind in the most difficult parting of my life. I was now on the lip of the Arab world, at the beginning of an entirely new journey – a profound diversion from anything I’d previously imagined. Within a few short weeks I would be riding on African soil; the continent where I had once sworn never to go. Now I was using that fear as a punishment: I had left the girl to whom I’d promised my lifelong companionship in favour of some selfish urge to explore the world anew and to challenge myself again. And the only way I could justify that awful decision was to set a course for the place I feared the most – Africa – and to throw myself at its feet, alone and exposed, until I could no longer remember the person I’d been when I started out. I’d had no idea where I would fetch up, nor how long the process might take. But I’d been left with little choice but to go and find out.
Only one self-imposed rule remained: at no point would I leave the surface of the Earth. And travelling overland to Africa would mean using the Middle East as a through-route. I had been on the road for long enough to have heard the travellers’ lore of the absurd displays of kindness and generosity that they encountered there, thanks to the region’s deep-set culture of hospitality. And I was now riding south into the heart of the region. Turkey, Armenia and Iran lay at my back.
I hadn’t expected grim skies and torrential rain, roaring trucks and road spray on the hard shoulder of Syria’s main highway. But I was desperate to put distance between myself and the events that I had left behind, still raw and disorienting. Understanding now why Andy had seemed so driven when I’d met him in Tehran, I pedalled hard through the rain and cold of a dismal Mediterranean January, my bike lighter and nimbler than ever before, my body drenched, feverish, but set once again to its task. I never stopped for sightseeing, whittled my daily routine to the sharpest of points, and slept wherever I was offered: in a roadside prayer-room, in the kiosk of a petrol station, behind a bakery, in a caretaker’s cabin beside an archaeological dig. The roads were ruled by Toyota pick-up trucks and swarms of Honda motorbikes, all piled high with goods and families and livestock. Curiously, instead of the standard monotone bleep, some factory worker had decided to make the reverse-gear warning sounds for the Honda bikes a little more spicy, and thus the back-streets of Syria echoed with crazed electronic renditions of the ‘Lambada’.
Let me just try and kind of summarise Syria.
It’s been pretty tough riding. It’s rained every day, and I’ve had a headwind most of the time. Camping last night, I was shivering and sweating into my sleeping-bag, and it’s now quite wet, which means it won’t be very warm tonight. But today I took the decision to turn off the highway and head inland, because I heard that it was – er – desert. And I thought there’d be less rain in the desert.
Well, I was wrong about that. It’s only just stopped raining! But I have indeed found the desert. And it’s a big … empty … bit of … orange … sand. Ha-ha!
I’m sorry I’m a bit incoherent. To be honest, I’ve only just started to feel better after having this cold and fever for the last few days. I’m probably going to get rained on again tonight. The only saving grace is that I’ve got some pasta and stock cubes to cook, which I will be doing very shortly.
Yesterday was … well, it was the pits, basically. It was the worst day I could have imagined. I cycled all day into the rain; into a headwind. I had a cold, and a fever, and a high temperature. And I slept – like crap – about five metres from the highway, in my tent. And it rained. And I just felt revolting. Absolutely disgusting.
Not only that, but I found myself missing Tenny an awful lot. Because my little green and yellow tent reminded me of us camping together while we were cycling through Armenia and Iran. Those times I hold very dear in my heart. Because they were … well, they were just very special. Just the two of us, out in the unknown, together. That’s the thing I miss the most at the moment. Now that I’m doing it alone, I can feel how good it was to have been doing it with her.
Striking out into drier climes, I found myself covering longer and longer distances each day, driven by a need to reach some place from which I could no longer feel the pull of the world I’d left behind, fuelled by falafel sandwiches and the staccato fury of my beloved electronic music. With no landscape features with which to track my progress, time began to flow weirdly in the desert, as if all the punctuation marks had been removed from the paragraph of the day; just one endless goods train of thoughts carrying a few scattered images: a shepherd boy who ducked and dived in front of my camera lens as if it were a pistol; a camel tied to a roadside post, patches of leathery skin torn away from its knees; crescent clouds edging across the sky like fish scales; a signpost in the emptiness offering a choice of destination between Damascus and Baghdad.
Single-mindedly I bypassed the great Levantine cities of Beirut, Amman and Jerusalem altogether; traversed the cavernous wadis and giddying peaks of Jordan; camped hidden in the hills above the Red Sea port of Aqaba. I rolled down the ferry’s ramp and onto Egyptian soil, and soon I was travelling into the mountainous desert of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, clutching the tailgate of a flat-bed truck with an outstretched arm, trying to decide whether this was more or less painful than climbing the hill under my own steam.
At the top, I waved goodbye to the truck and its friendly driver, shook my agonised arm back into life, and dropped down once again into the grovelling-over-my-handlebars posture I’d adopted in the face of the insufferable wind, which seemed to adjust its direction with uncanny precision to oppose my own. Only wind, I was beginning to discover, had the power to make a mockery of my best efforts. Since leaving Turkey for Syria, I had been pedalling stoically into it, the fluorescent yellow flag of my trailer bent over backwards by its relentless force. Days of perfect flatness had passed, with me spinning the pedals in first gear, inching forward at five excruciating miles per hour. In desperation I’d tied a thick woollen sock around the end of each handlebar, creating two crooks in which I could rest my elbows and drop my head like a racer in an attempt to make myself more aerodynamic. It had, at least, taken my eyes off the never-approaching horizon.
Setting off into the wind once more, I stared again at the bag mounted in front of my handlebars, which contained my camera, a wallet of small-denomination banknotes and my weathered passport. And hidden between layers of material, I knew, was a pendant of St. Christopher – the patron saint of travel – which my mother had tearfully given me twenty months previously, making me promise to carry it with me. When I would next see my family, I did not know.
Attached to the top of the bag was a transparent plastic folder containing a print-out of the Arabic alphabet and its equivalent pronunciation in English. Long days in this hunched-up position provided ample time for study, and with a little concentration I was now able to decipher the road signs and shop-fronts. This was enormously useful, as I had brought no maps of the region. Instead, I was navigating by memorising towns along my route and employing common sense and intuition in order to travel between them, and I could feel this method working on me. Parts of my brain that had lain dormant – rendered redundant by the Information Age – were being dusted off and brought back into action. Mental models of new places evolved ever more quickly; I could read the shape of landscapes now, and guess with precision where road-builders would have chosen to lay their stones. And I grew a subconscious affinity with the subtle way in which, over time, villages had become towns and then clustered into cities, motivated by commerce and transport and resources and waterways, their individual roads conglomerating with predictable logic, which meant that I was happily sailing through even the largest of settlements with no concern about losing my way. Soon I’d ditched the traditional idea of being lost or found altogether, rather I felt like I was percolating gradually through these ancient and awesome nations. And I’d never felt so alive.
This was the very reason I’d come on this journey. If only once, I desperately needed to experiment with life, entirely on my own terms; nobody watching, judging or setting expectations of route or distance or motive but myself.
Sunset. The world rolled to a halt. I dismounted and stood looking about in the grey dusk. The horizon’s rocky fringe still glowed in the west, beyond where lay Cairo and the mouth of the Nile, still a couple of hundred miles away. My trouser legs flapped in the breeze. All else was quiet on this road, a detour that spanned the peninsula’s uninhabited interior, away from the goods traffic that made its way to and from the capital further north.
I pulled from my head the sleeve of cotton that had been protecting me from the elements – a useful freebie from some sponsor, long ago. With the sun growing stronger as I drew south, and the desert wind and dust tormenting my skin, I would soon need to find a proper sunhat. I was sure that I’d be able to find one for a dollar or two in some Egyptian souvenir shop.
A faint set of tyre marks plunged off the road and into the sand to the north, disappearing behind hills of crumbled rock in the middle distance. I wondered whether or not to follow them. At best, they might lead to some huddle of workers or other – a quarry, perhaps, or a mine – and the men (they would of course be men) would welcome me to stay the night; another memorable punctuation mark in my new routine as a solo bicycle traveller. At worst, the trail would lead to a concealed patch of desert in which I could camp undisturbed; just another hidden spot that I would make home for the night. There must be thousands of those scenes playing out this very instant, unseen by the rest of the world – solitary figures setting up canvas and poles in the twilight, the orange glow of petrol stoves coming to life, peace returning as the fires fade away into darkness, and then the deep sleep of physical exhaustion. The same figures would be up before dawn, boiling water for tea as the tent was packed away, and then the wind in their tangled hair and tarmac crackling beneath their tyres as they hit the road to do it all over again.
I glanced back along the fading road; looked again at the tyre marks, shrugging off that familiar but subsiding twinge of fear. Well – given the choice between two options, I reminded myself, I might as well take the more interesting one.
I followed the trail towards the rocky hills, the road a receding line across the sand in the distance. The tracks skirted behind the shadowed eastern side of the hills, and as the road disappeared from view behind me, I saw – as predicted – a tiny cluster of low, makeshift buildings. A single earthmoving machine was parked beside the biggest hut, and next to it a trailer-tank. I leaned my bike against the tank and gingerly knocked on the door of the hut. But all was eerie and quiet.
Then I heard a faint cry. Looking round, I saw a solitary figure trudging through the sand towards me. The man was dressed in a desert robe of faded grey, a neat bundle of white wrapped tightly around his head above his ears. As he came closer, I began to make out his features in the failing light – creased eyes, kind but serious; a broad nose; a black moustache streaked through with white; some days’ stubble framing his mouth. Unhurried and quiet, he shook my hand, took a brief look at my bicycle, and wordlessly beckoned me into the hut.
I sat quietly on a heap of folded blankets in the corner, while the man sat on the single mattress opposite, pulling a bag of bread from its hiding place, unscrewing the cap of a large plastic bottle and decanting some of its contents into a china bowl. He gestured at me to eat. I tore at the bread, shaping it between my fingers, and then the smell of the dark syrup in the bowl hit me: molasses, the by-product of Egypt’s vast sugar-cane industry. The usual game of interrogative charades was never attempted, and we ate in silence in this little corner of light in the darkness – not exactly basking in the pleasure of each other’s company, but at least agreeable, on some wordless level, to the idea of seeing the evening out together.
After we’d eaten our fill of the bread and treacle, the man switched on a dusty old radio, so established in its place that it seemed until that moment to have almost melted into the wall of the room. Strains of music floated into the air, a crackling, wailing ode to some person or sentiment long since passed. Then he brought forth a small water-pipe and sat tinkering with its tubes and valves, and the room was soon rendered vague and dim with smoke.
I sat back on the blankets, watching this old Egyptian man. Somewhere in these hills, or perhaps in a town or village, this man had a family – a wife, maybe two or three; and children, or perhaps they’d now be adults too. In any case, here he was; a man displaced from these things, doing what he could to find some solace in his solitude. And maybe that was the thing that lay behind the strange bond I felt with this man: the knowledge that whatever was said or done, it would be said or done in loneliness. His was the loneliness of having been dragged away from those he held most dear to serve time in this hut. Mine, on the other hand, was self-imposed: the loneliness of the dream-bound traveller, questing in solitude towards some imaginary goal. No matter how enlightening or meaningful or humbling this quest might turn out to be, I would do well to remember that – for as long as it may continue – I would still sleep alone.