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Book Serialisation

The End

‘What was it Mark said three and‑a half years ago?’ I joked to Tenny. ‘Cycle on the left, cycle on the left, cycle on the left … or die!’ And with that we rolled off the ferry and onto the British mainland. There was no turning back now: we had escaped the Continent and set foot and rubber on the soil of England, five days short of my parents’ driveway in Middleton, Northamptonshire.

The late afternoon autumn air felt chilly and damp as we rode alongside the Victorian terraces of the Dover seafront. Looking for a grocer’s, we were befuddled by the town’s illogical one-way system and, with daylight failing, we cut our losses and rode up and out of the settlement towards the eastern cliff-tops, shrouded by low cloud. Leaping a stile, we set up camp in a misty paddock opposite an army barracks, and in the morning remembered why we’d needed supplies: there was nothing left to eat for breakfast.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said confidently to Tenny as she gathered up the wet fabric of the tent. ‘This is England. There are villages everywhere, and they all have these great little village shops.’

We set off into the freezing fog. Unlike any other type of fog, the English variety seemed able to penetrate every thread of clothing I possessed, and no matter how hard I pedalled, my fingers and toes still throbbed in the damp and insidious cold. South Kent seemed more hilly and remote than I had imagined. After two and a half hours of slogging on empty stomachs through lands devoid of all life, we passed a village churchyard and spotted a figure through the mist. The grey-haired woman was closing the gate behind her. She wore a long coat and dangled an empty watering can from one gloved hand.

‘‘Scuse me,’ I called, trying hard to make the question I’d asked a million times in a dozen languages sound casual. ‘You don’t happen to know if there’s a shop around here, do you?’

‘There’s a village store,’ replied the woman, ambling across the road to speak to us, ‘‘bout two ‘undred yards up the ‘ill there, on the left. Right next to the ‘all.’

‘Er, that’s great. Thanks!’ I said. How freakish people sounded – in Kent! But to hear a fellow Brit speak gave me a tug of deep-seated recognition, like hearing a snatch of a lullaby your mother once sang you, or getting a whiff of something that transports you instantly back to your grandparents’ kitchen on Boxing Day.

The woman looked me up and down, glanced with a grin at my panniers packed for two.

‘‘Ere, you’re good, in’t yer? Luggin’ that lot up an’ down all these ‘ills?!’

I smiled weakly, my body screaming out for sugar. ‘Er … well. I’ve had worse.’

 

It had taken us two months to reach the south coast of England. There’d been a long-winded series of bus journeys and an overnight ferry before Tenny and I had set out on another two-wheeled adventure, the most appropriate we could think up. It was not a journey through the soaring ranges of Central Asia and Tibet. India, too, would have to wait. For instead of Far East, we had travelled Far West, to the place that Tenny had dreamed of going for as long as she’d been capable of dreaming: Europe.

When I’d arrived in Tehran at the end of my journey through the Middle East and Africa – knocking on the door of the Adamian family home, Tenny answering the door, a look of bemusement across her beautiful face, then leaping in shock, warm tears rolling down her cheeks, her head pressed hard against my chest – I knew that this life of journey-making could no longer be all about me. Alone, I had gone as far as I needed to go. Europe was the most exotic-sounding place that Tenny could imagine, a place where everything would be captivating and new, and I would be a poor selfish fool not to give her the opportunity that only I – with my trusty British passport – had the power to grant. And so our adventures would now be led by her. A couple of months’ riding through Europe would bring us within striking distance of England. Spending the festive season with my family seemed a natural thing to do. And after the New Year … well, I had a few ideas.

The sunny olive groves and espressos of southern Italy were a dwindling memory as we lay in our tent behind what I now realised must be the University of Canterbury’s nightclub, listening to the patter of rain on the flysheet and the squeals of drunk students. But a breathtaking sunrise revealed a chilly but pleasant October’s day, and soon we were passing county markers of increasing familiarity. Only a couple more days on the road now separated me from the place I had left a lifetime ago. If I was still numbering the days in my diary, I would have known that it was 1,222 days previously that I’d first transferred my weight onto the right-hand pedal, gripped the handlebars, and stepped away from the ground and into motion. But I’d stopped counting long ago.

Pressing north from London, we’d been invited to stay the night with one of the veteran cyclists on whom I’d long ago sought to model myself, whose stories had inspired something I’d once called Ride Earth. Tenny and I rode down a narrow lane to a farmhouse deep in the countryside and leaned our bikes up by the double garage. She welcomed us indoors, introduced us to her husband and their two young daughters, and took great pleasure in force-feeding us an entire roast chicken.

Though the workshop at Royal Geographical Society was now a vague memory, I still felt a strange pang of disappointment to find that the heroes I’d seen up there on the stage didn’t really exist. This woman, for all her impressive-sounding adventures, was a human being too. As I considered this over a bottle of Black Sheep ale, I came to realise that it was actually a relief; a welcome reminder that the adventurous life was open to everyone, and that facts and figures were always beside the point. And I knew that my own journey, when I told of it, would be misinterpreted too. It was inevitable. Listeners would reconstruct the meaning of my story to please themselves, whether seeing it as an accomplishment beyond their reach, using the statistics of the journey as a benchmark for their own, or belittling my exploits as tales of weakness. But that was also the reason that I had to tell the story. Because only by making sense of what had happened for a listener would I make sense of it for myself. And none of this would stop me from continuing to live a life – with Tenny at my side – as close to or distant from the definition of ‘normal’ as we chose. That could mean living with two children in a cottage in Berkshire. But I suspected that it would turn out to be something a little different.

After dinner, I asked if I might hang our tent up to dry. Of course, came the reply. Just through that door into the back of the garage. You’ll find somewhere to put it, I’m sure.

I retrieved the sodden bundle of fabric from my bike, gave the stuck door a gentle kick. It creaked open. The room was dark except for a line of sunlight that edged beneath the big garage door that occupied the far wall. I ventured in, looking for a hook or a horizontal pole or a line on which to hang the flysheet. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that the garage was strewn with belongings. Backpacks and boots littered the floor. Beneath a workbench along the side wall was a row of open boxes. One was stuffed brimful with cooking pots, stoves and parts. Another contained a patchwork of waterproof bags. On the workbench itself was a neat row of packed-up tents in different sizes, ready to grab and go. And in the far corner I could see – illuminated by the strip of light – the familiar-looking shape of a touring bicycle, tyres firm, chain oiled, resting against the wall, pointed in the direction of the garage door. I could have mounted it there and then, pedalling away into the sunset for another lifetime of adventure.

But the bicycle would still be there to ride tomorrow.

 

On the final day of our ride through England, something unexpected occurred.

I was the first to clamber free of the tent that morning, emerging into a world encrusted with white. My breath condensed in front of my face; my eyelashes soon sticky with ice crystals. About thirty miles of cycling remained between the frosted field where we’d set up camp and the family home in which I’d once lived, and I expected that we would arrive in the middle of the afternoon while my parents were still at work. There would be no camera crew to record our arrival; no gathering of friends and family to celebrate what they would want to call my ‘homecoming’; no banner of balloons hoisted aloft above the main street of the village. In fact, nobody but my parents really knew that we were due in England at all.

‘Oh my god!’ exclaimed Tenny as she emerged into the pinkish light of dawn. There wasn’t a sound to be heard. ‘It’s f‑f-freezing!’

‘I know – it’s unbelievable!’ I said. ‘Why don’t you do some star jumps while I take the tent down?’

I fumbled with the tent pegs. My hands were numb with cold, and I couldn’t grasp hold of anything. I clumsily pulled on my gloves, but this only reduced my dexterity further. So I gritted my teeth and tried to pack up the ice-rimed tent away as quickly as possible with my raw and stinging hands. Neatness didn’t matter now; especially as I wouldn’t be using the tent again. Not for a couple of months, at least.

Tenny put on every scrap of clothing she could and we set off along the narrow lane. After a few miles of riding, we rounded a bend, and as I saw a junction appear up ahead, I suddenly knew exactly where I was. And I realised that it was the first time in three and a half years that I’d known exactly where I was, and exactly where I was going.

We arrived at the junction, and I automatically turned right.

I soon warmed up as I pedalled, as I was carrying not only my own luggage but Tenny’s as well. I’d realised before we’d left Armenia that doing this would balance the pace, me being a head taller than Tenny and quite a bit stronger after a few thousand miles of African dirt road. She would carry her essentials in a handlebar bag, and I would take the strain, like a chivalrous male of old, and our jaunt through Europe would be smoother and more enjoyable. But now, spinning unencumbered beside me, Tenny was finding it hard to get warm. So in the small town of Raunds we decided to stop for a second breakfast in a cafe on the high street and wait for the sun to climb a little higher.

We took two seats at a table by the window, and the bell rang as the door was pushed open again.

‘Morning, Paul!’ said the proprietress of the cafe. ‘Usual, is it?’

‘Yes, please,’ said Paul, removing a woolly hat and a pair of work gloves. He wore a grubby fluorescent yellow vest over a thick winter jacket. ‘Brittle out there!’ he said, to nobody in particular.

Two plates arrived: fat-oozing sausages with crusty blackened bits of skin, slices of salty smoky bacon, fried eggs with turgid yolks just waiting to burst forth, mushrooms and beans and tomatoes, and inch-thick slabs of granary toast, slathered with molten butter, sliced from a fresh tin loaf with a dark round top – something impossible to find anywhere else in the world but upon this curious little island in the north Atlantic. And then I looked across at my left hand, and saw that my wedding ring was no longer there.

I blinked. Looked again.

Only a circlet of shiny skin remained.

‘Oh.’

I felt cold.

‘What?’

‘Oh shit.’

‘What?!’

‘My ring.’

Tenny looked at my hand, gave a sharp intake of breath, and clasped her hands to her mouth. Her own ring, of course, a smaller version of my own, was still present on the ring finger of her left hand. I’d put it there myself, standing in a tiny octagonal chapel in Yerevan, surrounded on all sides by a press of friends and family, my tearful mum and my proud-looking dad, my younger brother Ben, Tenny’s parents and brother and sister and aunts and uncles, all craning for a glimpse of us, while Andy, my best mate and my best man, held a heavy crucifix above our heads in yet another impressive display of endurance. I started looking on the floor for that comforting flash of metal, moving my legs, craning my neck, looking over and over again at the same patch of floor in that stupid way you do when you can’t yet face the fact that what you’re searching for is simply not there.

I looked back up at my wife.

‘I don’t believe it.’

‘When did you last see it?!’

‘Erm … well, I’d have noticed last night if it was missing then. It’s got to have been this morning!’

‘Have you checked your pockets?’

I checked. They were, as usual, empty of anything useful. While I dug through the bits of accumulated fluff in the seams in search of a white gold ring, I made a mental trip back out of the cafe, retracing the last hour of riding, noting every spot at which I’d stopped and removed my gloves: the thick grassy verge where I’d taken a pee; the lay-by in which I’d set up the video camera to get a shot of the two of us cycling past; and of course the site of our previous night’s wild camp itself, which I had trudged about in for about twenty minutes before we’d set off. But really it could be anywhere along a ten-mile stretch of road – a tiny sliver of precious metal amongst the miles of frozen grass. What chance did we have of finding such a thing?

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ interrupted Paul from across the room, halfway through a bacon bap, ‘but did you say you’d lost a ring?’

‘Er … yes, it looks like we have,’ I said, half-laughing, and looking down again at the floor by my feet.

‘Just asking, ‘cos I’m picking litter up and down here all morning,’ he continued, ‘so if you’ve dropped it anywhere along this road, I’ll probably find it. D’you want to give me your mobile number, just in case?’

‘Oh … yes, that would be great,’ I said. ‘Very good of you to offer!’

‘Well, I’ll do what I can,’ he said. ‘If I’m able to help someone out – then why not? That’s how I see it!’

‘Well, it’s definitely worth a shot – thank you.’

I looked at Tenny again, who was smiling. I knew that Paul would not find the ring in Raunds, but his altruism was heart-warming. England wasn’t really such a bad place. I’d once convinced myself that it was, of course, in order to justify leaving. But England now looked quite different.

Tenny sat across the table from me, putting on her fleece gloves and her helmet.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘we can come back and look for the ring – if it’s there, in that field, it’ll still be there in a few days’ time. But right now I’d like to go home.’

We thanked the waitress and Paul and stepped out into the bright sunlight. The frost was melting now, tiny streams of water trickling down the fringes of the road. Tenny pulled her bike away from the wall outside the cafe, I followed, and together we rode on through the quiet back-roads of Northamptonshire. I looked at Tenny, pedalling alongside me. She would continue to be my wife, of course, with or without the ring. The commitment that I had made to her that day was in my heart, not on my finger.

And so, although it was a pleasant shock to find the ring, three days later, nestled between tufts of long grass in precisely the spot where I’d pulled out a tent peg that frosty morning with my raw and stinging hands – it really wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t.

We cycled on.

Later that afternoon we came to the outskirts of village called Middleton, and we zipped down the hill together towards the bend that would lead out onto the main road. As I passed the drinking fountain set in the hillside, from which I’d filled cycling water bottles for as long as I could remember, I flicked through some of the options for what I might say into the lens when I arrived on the far side of the bend. Rolling off the tarmac and up the gravel drive, I came to a halt, uttered a few choice words before the camera’s battery ran out, dismounted, and wheeled my bike to the steps that led up to the entrance of the house.

There was nobody at home. But the key had been left under the mat for us. So I unlocked the door, ushered Tenny into the warmth, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

 

THE END

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this free serialisation of Janapar: Love on a Bike. The comments section is now open for your questions and responses. If you enjoyed the book, and are feeling particularly generous, the best thing you could do to support my work is leave a short and honest review of the book on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Thank you so much for reading!

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Book Serialisation

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to get one over on my younger self

I return from the quiet spot at the far end of the beach with my video camera. It is almost completely dark, and the soldiers have set up camp in one of the huts. Unpacking my sleeping gear on one of the beach loungers some distance away, I notice a figure walking towards me. I’m surprised, and a little confused, when I see a Chinese-looking face emerging from the darkness on this abandoned beach in the middle of Yemen. And I am even more surprised when he greets me in perfect, Canadian-accented English.

‘You must be the cyclist I’ve heard about!’

‘Er – yeah. Yeah, that’s right!’

‘Joe. Nice to meet you.’

‘I’m Tom. Erm – what are you doing here, exactly?’

Joe tells me his story as we walk back over to the little open-fronted beach hut in which he’s set up for the night. He’s been living on this beach, he says, for almost a month. Joe is a Canadian photographer with Chinese origins, about the same age as me, unfortunate (or fortunate) enough to have been studying in Beirut at the moment when Israel’s military decided that it was high time for another invasion. Anthropology degree on hold, he’d grabbed an ageing camera, convinced a Western war-photographer to let him tag along, and had snapped a picture that had gone on to win first prize at the biggest photojournalism award ceremony on the planet. That award had launched his career.

‘I’ll probably go back to Beirut and finish my studies some day,’ he says, ‘but right now it’s pretty cool to be making a living like this – travelling the whole time, and to a lot of places that outsiders would never usually get to see, like here – and I get to take photographs, which is something I’ve found a real passion for doing … and I’ve got a home base in New York, as well … it’s a pretty nice place to be.’

I sit back as the Milky Way emerges and begins to illuminate a world in which all other light is absent. The soldiers, along with Joe’s government-assigned guide, are talking quietly in a hut nearby. Looking up at the starscape, I get the sudden sensation of being stranded on a rock, hurtling through space, while the ancient stars peer down at these weird little beings, convinced beyond doubt that their affairs and concerns are universal in magnitude as they pop in and out of existence, like sparks, upon the surface of that hurtling blue rock.

 

The next day, I badger the crew of sleepy gunmen mercilessly, and I eventually cycle off, leaving them behind. The sun is almost up: I need to get some miles behind me while it’s still cool.

They catch up a few minutes later and the Landcruiser trundles annoyingly along behind me at thirteen miles an hour, the soldiers no doubt wishing they’d never agreed to let me back on the road. Before too long I hear a horn being sounded. The pick-up has pulled to a halt behind me and the occupants are gesturing that they’ll catch up further on. So much for a personal bodyguard.

I ride undisturbed through the flowing undulations of sand and rock. Alone again in an empty landscape, I can think of nothing but the incredible slowness of my progress on this bicycle. Why had I been so insistent with the soldiers that I continue to ride? What am I gaining by doing so, except further confirmation that I am indeed able to force my body to pedal endlessly through the most debilitating of conditions? I know this already. I have confirmed it time and time again.

The truck is nowhere to be seen, and I ride for half an hour before I round a bend and find a large crowd of people walking along the road towards me. Drawing closer, I realise that these are no Yemeni locals. The group of twenty or thirty, some barefoot, a few clutching plastic bags of clothes, but most empty handed, trudge forlornly and quietly through the sand beside the road. Then I realise that these are the people that Joe has been waiting to meet for a month.

I speak to the young man who leads the group.

‘What are you doing here?’

I’m not sure what else to ask.

‘We have come from Somalia,’ he starts, in good English. ‘We have just arrived here. We have nothing. We don’t know where we are …’

He trails off and gazes down the road, the men, women and children behind him silent, staring blankly around them.

‘When did you arrive, exactly?’

‘Last night. Down there.’ He points towards a nondescript piece of coastline. The ocean, flecked with white, extends beyond as far as the eye can see.

‘We arrived by boat. From Somalia,’ he continues.

The truck has appeared in the distance behind me and is approaching at speed.

‘We need help. Anything you can do to help, we would appreciate. A place where we can go – anything.’

‘Erm …’

The soldiers overtake and park up the road ahead of us. I can hear them talking on the radio, but none of them get out of the truck. They are waiting for me.

‘I’m sorry … I’m not from around here.’ It’s all I can think of to say. How stupid I sound. I am here of my own free will. They risked their lives last night to stand here today. The group may well have been larger when it departed from Somalia, and these people may now be wondering what became of the friends and brothers and sisters and children and parents who were supposed to arrive alongside them on this stretch of coastline. And they will arrive, in a few days’ time, lying in the sun on Yemen’s beautiful empty beaches; bloated corpses which were once alive and determined, having taken that leap of faith to abandon the place they were born in; the place that – until yesterday – they called home, knowing that they may never see land again. And in taking that risk, they will have lost everything to a roll of the dice. Their bodies are what Joe came to Yemen to photograph.

But I have to do something!

‘OK – about five miles that way,’ I say, pointing down the road behind me, ‘there’s a village. There are already people from Somalia there. A refugee camp. If you go there, they might be able to help you.’

And that’s all that this heroic ‘adventurer’ can offer. The group shuffles off down the roadside, plastic bags rustling in the silence.

I walk to the truck, and soon we are hurtling down the road once more at a hundred miles an hour. Part of me considers asking the soldiers to call Joe to help him with his story. But the very idea seems absurd. Joe’s news story isn’t a god-damned story. It’s a group of people; people with histories and families and feelings, who have just stood barefoot on the roadside, stared me in the face and asked for help – any help, anything at all. Joe’s story will blend seamlessly into the ocean of bad news that breaks against the strongholds of the wealthy and free, masquerading as exposition of the world’s woes, but really achieving little but convincing us of how much awful stuff is happening ‘out there’, of how lucky we are not to live in such hopeless desperation – and of how fearful of losing that position of privilege we ought to be. He might even win another award for his pictures.

Nevertheless, I find myself envying Joe. He knows precisely what he is doing, here, in Yemen. It doesn’t matter what his government-assigned guide thinks, or what opinion a passing bicycle traveller has of his work. He is doing what he thinks is right; he is making a contribution to the world, and he is doing so with determination. Even the refugees, trudging silently along the roadside, have grasped their fate with both hands. They too have determination; they knew precisely what they were doing when they clambered aboard the rickety boat on a Somali beach under cover of darkness, and even if they have not yet lived out a single day under the Arabian sun, they at least know what they had in mind when they arrived here.

The Omani border is drawing close. Oman; home of the fabled Empty Quarter desert. A thousand miles of sand. The scorching heat of June.

It will be the final push – the last big challenge of this journey – all the way to the Gulf. There, I’ll find a ship to take me across the water to Iran. And then I’ll arrive in Tehran, at the door of Tenny’s family home. So much time and so many miles has passed between us; I have no idea whether that rift will heal. Like so much of this journey, it will be a foray into the unknown, driven by hope and curiosity. I will get to know her all over again, and she will get to know me – a man who has delved too far into his own head, by way of half of the African continent and a lap of the Middle East, and is trying to find his way back. I suspect that I will have to get to know myself again as I re-adapt to life within society; of seeing people more than once after waving goodbye, of sleeping in the same bed each night, of holding a conversation with someone other than myself.

The winter boots are waiting in Tehran, as well as that winter sleeping-bag, so that I can continue through Central Asia and Tibet, and eventually to the Far East. For as long as the journey remains relevant, I’d said to myself. But many times recently have I been reminded that my journey is in need of a renewed purpose. I need to acknowledge this; that momentum alone may not be longer enough. I have been stubborn in the past, and that stubbornness has certainly got me where I needed to go. But there is a difference between stubbornness and determination. Determination is inspired by clarity of purpose. Stubbornness exists in spite of it. If I set forth from Tehran for another journey of months or years, leaving Tenny behind once more … which of these things will be driving me?

Saying goodbye to my armed escort at Al-Mukalla, I lift myself into the saddle and scan the horizon. Soon I will be in Oman, and then the Emirates. Only a few more days of riding now remain.

Page Divider

Stomach full, I lie back upon the sand. A dune the size of a house watches over me as I look up at the obsidian sky, and I begin to sink into the kind of sleep that only a hundred-mile day of desert cycling can produce.

Funny, now, to think that I’m here because of an idea to cycle round the world. Instead of a day’s ride short of Dubai, I’d be somewhere in Australia right now, had I followed the path laid out by Ride Earth, desperately thinking up ways to get to South America without flying, then setting forth for another few thousand miles, reaching Middleton a couple of years later, arriving beneath another banner of white balloons to a pat on the back and a cup of tea.

What an anticlimax that would be – to close the book like that, leaning my bike up in my parents’ garage, saying, ‘Yes, I have finished.’ I would never look at a fully loaded bicycle again! My life during that time would become a neat package, something kept on a shelf and occasionally dusted off to flick through with a sigh whenever someone asked what I’d done with my twenties. I no longer feel the need to start with a capital letter, put a full stop at the end of last line, and keep things in between nice and neat. I don’t want to build my time on the road into an achievement so grand that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to get one over on my younger self, trying to frame my future actions to sound bigger and grander than before.

What drove me to leave England, I remind myself, was a desire simply to learn – not for any distant end, but for the joy of learning itself; about the world and, I suppose, about myself. Though it will take years to process, I’ve learnt so much that I could not have learnt any other way. And I could continue, experiencing more of the world’s natural beauty and the rainbow of human expression that dwells within it. But I need time before I do that, because another upheaval is due. I need to bring some things together that until now have been kept distant from each other. I need to remedy the ills that have begun to plague my experience. There is so much about this lifestyle that I truly love. But surely these simple and fascinating journeys might be even more satisfying if balanced with that rooted contentment I felt in Armenia, and the joy I find in reconstructing my experiences in words and sentences – writing a book, perhaps! – and, above all, that sense of sharing a direction in life that I felt next to Tenny? Is it possible, somehow, that I can forge a life that consists of all of these elements combined?

I have no idea. But I feel compelled to find out. And the prospect excites the hell out of me.

The desert falls into darkness, the last few cars audible from the road that runs through this ever-shifting sea of dunes.

 

In the morning, I get up early, wolf down some breakfast, and pack up my meagre belongings, eager to get some miles behind me before the sun rises to its infernal daytime heights. One more day of riding; one last sea-crossing. I am sure that this ferry journey to Iran will be far less memorable than the time I spent aboard the Sina, leaving Egypt behind for Sudan, bypassing the two nations’ political squabbles as we glided across the surface of Lake Nasser, watching the monolithic tombs of Abu Simbel drifting past at sunrise, eventually fetching up in Wadi Halfa – where I’d bought a reassuring amount of food and water and then pedalled south into the Nubian desert before could I change my mind.

There’s one more task that I must do before I set off, so I rummage for my video camera. Flipping open the tiny screen so that I can see myself, I grin with surprise. The familiar matted greasy hair has gone, replaced with a freshly trimmed head of hair that might even be described as smart. My beard has disappeared, subtracting a decade from my age. The bridge of my nose is still burnt deep red, of course, and my skin and clothes are still coated in a beige film of dust, sweat and grease, but I look ready for what lies ahead. My face, it seems, could tell my story on its own.

I adjust the camera to produce the best possible picture. The well-practised calibrations happen in an instant. Pressing the red button, I zoom in slightly and my mirror-image fills the frame: some guy, talking to a camera in the middle of a desert. I fold the screen back out of sight, fix my gaze on the dark circle of glass, open my mouth, and begin to speak.

I must continue telling this story.

Categories
Book Serialisation

I cycle east out of Aden, savouring every breath of breeze

Aden is a nice place, I think, as we race along the cliff-hugging roads in and around the crater of the extinct volcano that houses the city. This upwelling of rock off the south coast of Yemen is connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. Without this isthmus, Aden would just be a curious-looking island poking out of the sea. But the remarkable configuration of land and water once made it one of the old Empire’s main shipping stop-offs between Britain and India, poised halfway between the Suez Canal and Bombay. We drive through the old town, embedded within the natural fortress of the crater, then up and through a short tunnel in the rock to the crater’s exterior where the vast Indian Ocean vanishes behind the curvature of the planet, then down again and onto a long, modern strip in the vibrant Mu’alla district, all electronics shops and swanky restaurants and Internet cafes full of small boys playing extremely violent computer games. These gaudy establishments are built into the ground floors of huge, terraced, colonial townhouses – indistinguishable from their siblings in central London, now reassigned to look hopeful and glamorous in a nation still troubled by disunity, like so many former colonies of European imperial powers.

Khalid is in the driver’s seat; he’s a university student, Aden native, and friend of Romain, the young and laid-back French teacher with whom I’m staying in Aden. Khalid, a dark, naturally good-looking twenty-year-old with designer stubble and a stylish head of carefully gelled hair, regales us with tales of the shenanigans of the young and liberal in Aden.

‘Everyone’s getting it on with each other here,’ he boasts. ‘That’s why the Saudis come here on holiday. Me? Different girl every week. Beautiful girls. Really beautiful.’ He laughs. ‘Of course it’s all behind closed doors … these girls, students, want to have fun, but nobody can find out. The families can never know. We have to be really careful to avoid being seen. But it’s all a game, you know?’

I haven’t seen many obvious pick-up opportunities – strictly speaking, associations between unrelated men and women are forbidden here. But I’m about to find out how the youth of Aden get over that hurdle.

‘Let’s go to the mall. I’ll show you.’

Off we drive to Aden Mall, the pinnacle of the small moneyed class’s material aspirations, where every shiny lifestyle toy can be bought at a premium price within a premium setting. Dubai doesn’t just export goods and satellite television – it exports the very idea of itself across the Arab world.

‘We don’t come here to buy anything,’ says Khalid. Romain is content to come along for the ride; he’s been here more than a year and has been recently trying to make headway with the gorgeous girl behind the counter at the public phone-booth centre, but is unsure how to ask for her number.

‘I know her,’ says Khalid, putting his arm round Romain’s shoulder as we walk. ‘Don’t worry, my friend! We’ll get you with her. She’s into you. I know it!’

In the mall, all space and polish and glass and meticulous lighting, we head for a juice bar. Fresh juices have become my ambrosia in this region. A blender full of mango, whole lime and lemon, orange or – my personal favourite – ginger, is never far away, the contents waiting to be whizzed up with ice and poured through a sieve and handed over.

‘Now look around,’ instructs Khalid. The place is pretty quiet, with only a few families, merchants and the occasional pair of slim black shrouds gliding quietly across the marble floors. ‘OK, we’re early. The best time to come is after university has finished – especially on Thursdays.’ (Friday is the weekend.) ‘Girls will come here to pick up guys. Right now, this is the place. When you see a girl looking right at you from across the mall, that’s a pretty good sign. You need to wait and see if she looks again. And if she does – then you know she’s interested.’

Right … and what next?

‘Well, are you interested? If so, we have some special words. Innocent words. For example, you go up to the girl and ask: “Excuse me, what’s the time?”’

Not a line I’ve heard before. And then?

‘If she tells you the time and it’s correct … well, bad luck, my friend. But if she tells you the time and it’s ten minutes out – then …’ And he laughs. ‘Or, another one is: “Excuse me, can you tell me the way to Pizza Hut?” And a wrong answer means “Meet me outside in five.” Obviously it’s easier when it’s dark …’

Yemeni food is turning out to be the surprise highlight of the country, so we head down to the fish market where small motor-boats are still arriving with their catches. After selecting a suitably enormous specimen and giving it to the chef of the restaurant next door to bake and serve with a pile of steaming flat-bread and spicy sauce, the conversation continues.

‘I know I’ll want to settle down, find a good wife, marry, have children,’ says Khalid. ‘I wouldn’t marry any of these girls I’m seeing, though – I know what they do, how they behave. I wouldn’t trust them.’

‘But that’s double standards,’ replies Romain, ever the Frenchman, not shy of a good argument over dinner. ‘You want the young, beautiful ones now, but when you marry … you want them to be pure – virgin!’

‘Yes. Every guy wants his wife to be a virgin. Of course!’ Khalid shrugs.

‘So what will these girls do?’ I ask.

‘Oh, it’s easy enough for them,’ he says. ‘They’ll have … operations, to restore … you know. There are plenty of doctors here doing this. Then they can get married, and their new husbands will never know!’

‘So how can you be sure?’ continues Romain. ‘How can you be sure that your new wife won’t have had that operation?’

‘I’ll just know,’ returns Khalid, although he sounds more hopeful than he does convinced.

The conversation turns to religion. Renan, a traveller from Turkey who’s also staying with Romain, is interested to know what kind of reception I’ve had, being stereotyped as a Christian.

‘I’m an atheist,’ I tell him, ‘and the first few times I was asked about religion – in Turkey – it didn’t go down too well. It was difficult for them to comprehend that someone can have no religion at all. It seemed like the idea just didn’t exist.’

I remember my evening in a caretaker’s hut near some Roman ruins at Ebla in Syria, where I’d met a very sharp and well-educated Syrian man of about my age with whom I’d talked long into the night. But when the topic came up, he’d told me in no uncertain terms that not having a religion was equivalent to not having a heart. Some things, evidently, were still set in stone. From that moment forth I’d decided it would be easier to run with the Christian stereotype, even though that came with some complicated explanations of the subtle nature of Anglicanism.

‘Really?’ says Renan. ‘Because I’m also an atheist. I don’t believe in any of that crap. But Turkey isn’t as secular as you’d think, unfortunately. Religion is always getting in the way. We have this stupid Islamic government on one side, and the army defending religious freedom on the other. Did you know that the national identity card has an entry for religion? And “atheist” isn’t an option. So mine says I’m Muslim!’

Like me, Renan had travelled through the Levant before taking a flight from Cairo to Yemen.

‘But I never lied about it,’ he continues. ‘I’m Turkish, and I speak a bit of Arabic, so I suppose it’s easier for me. If anyone asks, I just say that I was brought up in a Muslim family, but when I got old enough to have my own ideas, I realised it wasn’t for me, so I’m not committed to anything right now. And that was fine – people could understand that. I don’t think you need to pretend.’

The next day I have some chores to do. I must find the police station and get a permit to travel east from Aden, through central Yemen and on towards Oman. The route will pass through the ‘dangerous’ region of Hadramout, which – aside from being home to loads of normal people living normal lives – is also where four South Korean tourists were blown up a couple of months ago while posing for a photo in front of some ruins. The region also boasts a history of kidnappings by remote communities, branded with the indignity of the ‘tribal’ label, who, like the Afar, need leverage to get their marginalised needs fulfilled. Build a bridge here – we’ll release these foreign hostages. Pave that road there – we’ll release these foreign hostages.

I produce my passport and tell the police chief I need a permit to travel on roads east of Aden.

‘Yes, that is correct,’ he says, with a sigh, reaching for a drawer in the sweltering little room. It’s more the humidity than the heat – still, oppressive, lethargy-inducing, bringing a permanent sheen of sweat to the skin. The slightest breeze tickles the body like a wave of purest pleasure, whatever the source – ceiling fans, open car windows, the brisk brushing past of a pedestrian – cruel instants of respite from the maddeningly hot, moist, invisible, salty fog that lies across the land.

‘How is the road?’ I enquire as he fills out the form. ‘Is it safe?’

‘Yesterday, safe. Today, safe,’ he replies. ‘Tomorrow … ?’

And he shrugs. The message is clear: Nobody knows, so keep your fingers crossed. Things can and do change overnight here. But he’s giving me the permit, so the risk can’t be all that great – can it?

 

I cycle east out of Aden, savouring every breath of breeze that the act of cycling generates. Thick air lies across the coast like a blanket, and I ride as if pushing through hot, invisible mist. My clothes are soon soaked. Stopping for a break, I find that it is possible to wring pools of water out of the sleeves of my shirt.

I’d discarded the ragged remains of my trousers in Aden and bought instead a futa, a traditional wraparound garment, tucked into itself and fastened with a belt, rather like a long kilt, albeit with the distinctive patterning of the Orient. It is clear why Yemeni men still wear this: in this climate, only the kind of full and easy access allowed by such loose folds of fabric can keep one’s nethers adequately ventilated. I soon learn the knack of arranging my futa to take full advantage of the oncoming breeze, yet at the same time avoiding undue alarm when encountering passers-by.

Arriving at a checkpoint a few hours’ ride along the coastal road, I brandish my permit with a confident smile. This, I have heard, is as far as travellers in Yemen have been allowed in recent years. The province of Hadramout lies ahead, Yemen’s tribal heartland, and too many politically motivated kidnappings have taken place in Hadramout for the security forces to risk allowing another vulnerable foreigner alone upon its roads. I brace myself for the order to turn around; for my ride towards Dubai and Iran to be stalled. And I am taken by surprise when the guards wave me casually through. I cannot quite believe it: they are allowing me to continue!

And so I ride on, into the empty coastal dunes of Yemen. I had not quite been prepared for this, and I realise that my supplies for the road ahead have been ill thought out. I’m not even sure how far I’ll have to ride before the next town! It shouldn’t matter – there’s a steady stream of traffic, should I run out of the essentials. But I can’t help wondering why I hadn’t taken provisioning as seriously as I usually would.

A few miles later I spot a pick-up truck on the side of the road in the distance. As the shape grows more distinct, I notice something mounted to its roof. By the time I have realised that the ‘something’ is an enormous machine-gun, half a dozen men in camouflaged overalls have sprung from the truck and are marching towards me. They are all carrying the world’s most popular firearm: the AK-47.

I roll to a halt a couple of dozen yards away, quickly dismounting. Then I wheel my bike towards the oncoming men. They are already reaching for my bicycle. And I already know what is going to happen.

‘Mister Allen?’

‘Yes?’

‘Come with us, please.’

My bicycle is being taken away from me. Clumsy, careless hands are dragging it onto the back of the truck. The pedals are clanging against the tailgate; the chain falling off, sagging; a pannier crushed mercilessly as the bike is wedged between the men who are now resuming their positions on the benches; I am already checking off its contents in my head, noting what is likely to be damaged; then I am ushered round to the passenger door of the pick-up and offered the seat between the driver and his buddy. I ask to be allowed to take my handlebar bag inside, with my passport and wallet and video camera, and the hidden pendant of St Christopher that my mum gave me. And the soldiers of the Yemeni military – my personal bodyguards for the road through Hadramout – are happy to oblige.

As we speed through the empty wasteland, windows down and engine roaring, sand and rock and scrub flying past on either side, hazy mountains on the northern horizon and the flickering blue of the Indian Ocean on the south, I begin to see what was really sabotaging my single-minded pedalling routine. I had not paid due attention to the prospect of cycling the full length of Yemen for one simple reason: I didn’t truly want to. A protest had been playing out in my head as I’d realised that the security forces were about to snatch me from the road, but the bigger part of me had felt relief, not annoyance, that my ride was going to be shortened by several hundred miles. Something is dragging me towards the prospect of seeing Tenny, now, and in this tug-of-war that I sense happening within myself, the opposing pull of my much-dreamed-of life on the road is beginning to lose the fight. There are greater forces at work here, and I am being dragged faster than I am able to ride.

By the time the day draws to a close we have journeyed half the length of the nation’s coastline to a soundtrack of crooning Arabic pop. Each soldier has had his turn at manning the machine-gun, and at wearing my sunglasses whilst doing so, and there hasn’t been cause to employ the weapon; indeed the driver seems to know personally the men who raise the barriers for us on the way into and out of each small town along this road. I suppose that security here relies on friendships and allegiances, rather than on some prim and proper notion of law and order, and I guess that there is in fact some merit in having these soldiers along: it is the calming influence of the known and trusted, rather than the brash threat of a firefight, that is keeping me safe.

The villagers of Bir Ali suggest that we camp for the night upon a nearby beach. Arriving at sunset, there is nobody to be seen, just a scattering of ramshackle huts and a few sun-bleached wooden deck chairs that look to have been thrown together in a hurry and forgotten. There is an air of abandonment here, as if this was once a popular local tourist destination, before the economy began to collapse and the region fell again into unrest. And I realise that this place has all the makings of a paradise on Earth. The sun is sinking behind the inland hilltops in a cloudless sky. Turquoise shallows extend out into a sheltered lagoon, warm and clear and calm. The sand is as pale and smooth as the fairest skin. It is every bit the archetypal beach towards which Alex Garland had Richard and his fellow backpackers questing. And, just as in that story, it seems that such surroundings are soon overshadowed by more human concerns.

 

Some of the more attentive amongst you may have noticed that I have a new shirt. And yes. I bought a new shirt. I shelled out a whopping four dollars here in Yemen to replace the tattered rags that were previously adorning my upper torso.

What I should talk about – and I know I’ve rambled a lot here – but the main thing that’s coming out of all this is that I’m … mentally, I’m struggling to appreciate being here. The reason is quite simple. It’s because my mind is set on getting back to Tenny.

And so I’m really struggling to focus on the day that I’m experiencing.

I know that it’s a long way. I know that it’s another two thousand kilometres to cycle back to Tenny. And I know that every single day, I should just think about that day, and not about the two thousand kilometres ahead of me. But … if I no longer care about what I’m seeing, and I no longer care about meeting people, then …

I’ve been alone – for a long time, now, I’ve been doing this.

And you know what?

I think I’m getting tired.

Categories
Book Serialisation

Soon I’d ditched the traditional idea of being lost or found altogether

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 … ?

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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.

Categories
Book Serialisation

This is the very essence of adventure; nothing mighty or medal-winning, simply embracing the unknown

I was wrong about Hassan. On first impressions, I thought that he was just a particularly friendly vagrant who’d hopefully refrain from pinching my stuff. But I realise I’ve underestimated him when he reappears the following day and offers me a place to stay.

Yesterday’s promised boat ride didn’t exist, and nor will there be a sailing today, so I’ll clearly need somewhere to spend another night, and I am more than welcome to come with him to his home. But out of the blue comes a distant memory – of Sebeş, of the dreary post-communist decay and rain and mud, and of Simon, his moustache and leather jacket, his underhand attempt at extorting cash in return for a night spent sleeping on his floor, and I’m frustrated that this image has reared its head, because it means that suspicion and fear still linger, despite all of the goodness that has done so much to dissolve them, and I suddenly feel less strongly about the pastor’s unpleasantness the previous night, reminding myself that we are all capable of gross errors of judgement. In a kind of self-punishment I decide to take Hassan’s every word at face value from that moment forth. So I take hold of my bike and follow him on foot down the dusty tarmac, away from the port gates. We reach a gap in a high wall and I hear the buzz and chatter of a horde of people from its far side. Rounding the corner and passing between a pair of gateposts in the wall, I am confronted with a thousand stares from another universe.

The scene is so bewilderingly chaotic that I almost instantly lose track of where I am or where Hassan is taking me, and I try to make sense of what appears to be a vast, clattering community of working men and their legions of unemployed cohorts, crammed into a walled compound a couple of hundred yards square and left to build whatever they like there. It’s the most contrived slum scene that Hollywood has ever come up with, presented in three-dimensional smell-taste-touch-o-vision, and at the same time nothing like it, because it’s real and right there in front of me with a depth and richness that fiction could never replicate. Bare light bulbs hang from knotted cables; windows of pink sunset emerge between tin sheets and walls of tarpaulin and string. Hassan brings me along a meandering walkway which seems to have spontaneously evolved out of the disordered piles of wonky tables and stools and makeshift walls that divide up the colonies of dimly lit kiosks. Below, chefs toss great wokfuls of spaghetti Bolognese into the air above roaring gas-stove cylinders. Literally hundreds of Djiboutians pause mid-mouthful, wherever they are sitting or standing, to watch my white face cross through this den. They look like survivors from some science-fiction apocalypse, closed off from the rest of the world, lost in time.

I’m expending all my energies trying to pretend that there is nothing unusual about my presence and that I am entirely unfazed by the spectacle, when Hassan stops in front of one of the little shoulder-width kiosks, shakes a few hands in the shadows and introduces me to his uncle.

‘My uncle will look after your bike for the night,’ he announces. And the shadows wait expectantly for my compliance.

My entire worldly possessions handed over to a complete stranger in a compound full of unemployed African men? While I follow another man, who I hardly know and who barely speaks my language, across this vast, poverty-stricken city on the promise of a bed for the night?

Alright then. Face value, remember?

‘See you tomorrow!’ I say in French to Hassan’s uncle. ‘À demain!

I grab my bar-bag with my diary, passport and wallet inside it, Hassan and I leave the compound, and ten thousand permanently jobless dudes know that the white guy has left his million-dollar bike and its blatantly cash-packed panniers lying around somewhere on their sovereign territory. It’s almost dark as we wait to hop onto a minibus decked out with fluorescent trims and decals and pumping bass – the gaudiest thing I’ve yet seen in this stark, sun-baked peninsular. I look out the window and try to figure out where we’re going and distract myself from the overpowering smell of too many sweaty humans crammed into a tin box on wheels. And within minutes I am completely lost.

‘Get off here!’ Hassan shouts at me, barking something else in Somali or Arabic to the driver. Djibouti’s stew of languages is brain-melting – officially French and Arabic, as can be seen from the road signs and shop-fronts and newspapers, but Somali is what’s spoken on the ground. And there’s a fair bit of Afar here too, I’ve heard, though I’ve seen precious few Afars since I left their lands in Ethiopia.

We disembark and I suddenly realise that this is somewhere I’ve seen before: a central open-air bazaar strung with trails of energy-saving light bulbs and mountains of fruit piled high into the night sky. But we’re not here to shop; we’re changing buses. Hassan clambers aboard a bigger vehicle which looks like an antique hand-me-down from some rich European nation, pays again for the two of us, and we lurch off in another direction. It is a long time later that we climb down and onto the street, by which point I’ve long since lost my bearings. It’s much quieter here, more open, slightly hilly; I can see nothing except dim outlines of a road and walls and telegraph poles. It appears that there’s no electricity supply right now.

I follow Hassan through the pitch-black silence, the ground faintly illuminated by a full moon, and we turn down an unpaved side street. Where exactly are we going? The mystery and unpredictability, I realise, are thrilling. This is the very essence of adventure; nothing mighty or medal-winning, simply embracing the unknown, abandoning fear and hoping for some degree of joy or intrigue. And if I’ve found both in a dark alley in a Djibouti backwater, so be it.

After a few hellos to passing shadows in the street, we arrive at the large, metal gate of a compound. My companion calls softly to its occupants and the big gate creaks on its hinges, revealing several pair of eyes in the darkness: Hassan’s family.

We venture inside and I struggle to make out the figures, but it’s clear that a fair few people live here. There’s a single-storey building to the right with a few doors, a good-sized yard within the compound’s fence, dotted with white mosquito nets draped over mattresses, and a little wooden shack raised up on stilts in the far left corner, which I assume must be the toilet. I’m greeted in whispers by a middle-aged couple and one much older man, and then smaller children and teenagers erupt silently from the shadows and press around me. Everyone speaks with hushed voices, and it’s bizarrely serene for what I guess newsreaders and geography textbooks back home would describe as a developing-world slum. Not a vehicle, generator, dog, chicken or voice can be heard: the sounds that make up my normal daily life are all absent this evening, the world sitting quietly under the full moon.

A smiling face accompanies the arrival of a bucket of water and shadowy hands gesture me to follow them to the toilet block where I discover a second area for showering, and I wash myself in the darkness with the cold water. Then I’m guided to where another mattress has been laid out beneath a mosquito net in the yard and made up with fresh sheets: this will be my bed. Pleasantries exchanged and goodnights bidden, I lie down in the cool night air beneath the stars in this silent East African shanty town, my mind a world away from the endless hustle to find a ship across the Gulf of Aden.

 

Hassan wakes me up quietly. It’s still completely dark and silent. I throw off the mosquito net, pull on my disintegrating linen trousers and grab my bar-bag, and we leave through the big metal gate, walking back up the dirt road towards the asphalt where we’ll catch another pair of buses to take us back to the port. Hassan makes this journey every day, and it’s clear that it’s not for himself but for his whole family that he does this. He can’t afford not to – one day off and he might miss the only earning opportunity for weeks.

We stop on the corner and sit under an awning on a couple of old chairs. A man brings us two cleaned-out tin cans full of tea. There’s a dash of condensed milk in the tea, and as we drink and the purple dawn creeps over the horizon, I’m aware of how centred I feel, sitting here, drinking tea with milk, even though I’ve spent the night in a home I couldn’t see, in the company of a family I met only as spectres. I still find it incredible that I can make almost anywhere feel like home for a night, simply by accepting it for what it is, rather than dwelling on what it isn’t.

But the bus grinds up and all too soon I’m back in the roasting hubbub of the port. We walk quickly to the medieval circus where I left my bike. And, running the gauntlet of the wide-eyed stares once more, I pick out the kiosk, head quickly round to the far side of it – and all of my suspicions are confirmed.

My bike, my video camera and all of my luggage is precisely where I left it. It is completely undisturbed.

(Photo credit: Ed Ou)