Midday in the Sahara. There’s no-one to be seen. I push my bike amongst the outlying buildings. All is silence.
A small boy darts from nowhere and makes a snatch at my trailer’s tattered flag. I yell at him, he yells something back into the bright heat and darts away again – gone.
I hear the squeal and clang of a metal door and follow the sound, emerging from between the low houses and courtyards and onto what I guess is the main street; a slightly wider piece of desert between the mud-walled compounds. So this is a Nubian village. It is hot and sunny; eerily quiet. Obviously. Who’d be outside in this weather?
Padding towards a doorway across the street, I almost walk into the young man who steps out as I approach. If he’s surprised to bump into a grimy sunburned tramp wandering through his village, he hides it very well. More faces peer out from what I can now see is a little shop; men in purest white, women colourfully wrapped, stepping outside to meet me, all smiling broadly. This smile seems to be something of a permanent feature of the Nubians. With some exaggerated miming I explain that I am ill, desperate, and looking for a place to rest.
Immediate hilarity ensues and the entire village springs into life. Calls to action bounce down the street like squash balls: suddenly there are people everywhere. I’m ushered through a gate into one of the nearby compounds. Enclosed by a thick high wall of Nile mud, robust as concrete in the heat of the desert, the house I find inside is big and spacious. Little distinction is made between indoors and out – windows, doorways and arches have been carved from the dry walls, some areas roofed with palm-branch lattices, and the entire structure is painted in white, yellow and blue, appealingly simple in appearance. The young man introduces his three colleagues: civil engineers from faraway Khartoum, working on the new road. They will be my hosts, he says, for as long as I remain in need of a place to stay.
I’m shown to a spare bed, where I sit quietly and think, left for a moment to my own devices. I have been asked for no money in return for this hospitality. Yet the place is not a wealthy one; whatever my personal budget and notions of frugality, there’s little doubt that I have come here bearing the riches of kings. Should I offer something by way of thanks? Or would doing so strip away that human altruism that has brought such joy to my journey? Before I can find an answer to that question, my hosts return, and I am whisked off on a tour of the area.
The village sits beside a stripe of fertile land that reaches down to the banks of the Nile, criss-crossed with irrigation channels, dotted with stands of tall date palms and cultivated with wheat and beans. The little fields are fed by rusty diesel-powered pumps that are occasionally fired up to fill the channels with river water. Next come the house visits; I am a source of curiosity in Wawa, and I’m passed from family to family for the rest of the afternoon.
At the end of the day I find myself sharing a communal hang-out in the village centre with a handful of men. The TV is on, beaming images of crisis from around the world into this tiny dwelling in the desert. The day after I’d received my visa to enter Sudan from the country’s embassy back in Cairo, the international community had issued an arrest warrant for Omar Al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, over the small issue of several hundred thousand deaths and the displacement of two-and-a-half million of his own people. This was merely the latest set of figures to give the illusion that Sudan’s eternal conflicts were somehow quantifiable. The following day, all visas were off. I could call myself lucky to have got that green sticker, if it weren’t grotesque to mention good fortune at all in the light of the events that led to such a decree.
And I think of none of this, because I’m sitting in the cool shade, drinking tea and laughing with strangers. And the sun sinks below the skyline in the ravaged, war-torn, peaceful and hospitable country of Sudan.
I wish . . . I could be doing this with Tenny. I have to say it.
This is such a fantastic experience. But I really . . . I really wish I could be sharing it with her. It would be so good to be able to do this with, er . . .
Yeah – with the woman who I love.
I know that right now it’s not possible. I know that, but it doesn’t make any difference: I’m always thinking about it. Always. Always thinking about her, being with her . . . that moment when I see her again.
And every time I have an experience, whether it’s good or bad, I’m always thinking: it would be so good – it would be so good to be sharing this, even if it’s a bad experience, it would be so good to be sharing it with Tenny.
I don’t regret doing this.
But it would make such a big difference to be doing it with her.
And that’s all I want to say, really.
‘You look tired!’
‘Huh? Ah. Yeah. We slept in a park last night. Just down there.’ Mark pointed wearily down the lakeside promenade to a grassy, tree-studded park, where a group of Swiss youths were setting up a game of bowls, unaware that the green had until a few minutes ago been somebody’s bedroom.
‘Aha! You’re going far?’
‘Round the world!’ we mumbled in chorus.
‘Mmm. Well,’ grinned the slender grey-haired lady, ‘I’ve also been on a kind of “world tour”. So, if you’re not in a rush, I’d like to invite you to my place. We can chat. You can rest. You can spend the day there if you like? Stay the night, even. It’s no trouble.’
Invitations like this had become a frequent feature of our journey across Western Europe. By far the most effective method of eliciting them had been to ask plainly for help – for a water-bottle refill, or, if we were feeling lucky, for a spot to pitch our tents. Mark had become the designated door-knocker after a brilliant early run in the Netherlands, where we’d made this astonishing discovery. Putting on a happily clueless face, he would unveil his goatee, put on a cycling headband that looked to the untrained eye like a fluorescent-yellow sock, and amble vaguely towards his quarry. And the sight of this pitiful creature seemed to awaken the hospitality buried in every human being.
It may also have been that he didn’t take things this as seriously as I did. For me, stopping a passer-by or knocking on a door was a sign of weakness. The journey I’d always imagined was supposed to be a demonstration of self-sufficiency, and my hesitant approaches seemed to put people off. But as far as Mark was concerned, he was just asking for help. And by doing so, he had become responsible for a staggering list of back gardens, garage floors, spare rooms and sofas on which we had spent our nights since we had vowed in that leaky Amsterdam hostel to abandon paid accommodation entirely. These encounters had been diverse; our hosts revealed a dazzling array of hobbies and professions and views on the world. And, in that way, farmers, plumbers, school teachers, conservationists, diplomats, judges, newspaper editors, blacksmiths, businessmen, translators, potters, water-polo coaches, vagrants and violinists had become part of the journey I’d always imagined would be about sweat, strain, mountains, forests, wild camps, sunsets and the purest form of independence.
Mirella’s unexpected invitation was unusual in that it had arrived unsolicited – and at seven-thirty in the morning. As we waited on the lakeside wall while she ran some errands, I wondered what kind of ‘world tour’ she’d been on. It wasn’t likely to compare to what we were doing, of course, but it would be fun to hear about it anyway. Soon we found ourselves cycling behind our unexpected host into the terraced suburbs of Montreux, where we weaved up the steep and crooked alleys to Mirella’s home. We wheeled our bikes into the garage, paused briefly to admire the wizened old touring steeds that rested inside, and followed her into a house full of airy rooms and natural light; a monument to simplicity, overlooking Lake Geneva – the most beautiful bathroom on Earth, she said.
Mirella unpacked her shopping in the kitchen and quietly explained that she’d spent a total of twelve years on the road with her husband, over the course of three separate world tours. India, Australia, Tibet, China, Yemen, Oman – the roll-call went on, but without a hint that she was merely ticking off a list of countries. Her ride hadn’t hinged upon big distances or impressive-sounding continental crossings, and she clearly didn’t think herself superior as a result of her achievements. The Italian-born nurse was in her fifties and had only recently returned to Switzerland after eight continuous years of life on the world’s back roads, finishing her ride back into Europe by following the River Danube as we were planning to do on our way towards Asia.
Her husband Luc, she said, was in Taiwan on a photography assignment, and if the couple had children who’d grown up and left home, Mirella didn’t mention them. While we slumped half-asleep in the sitting-room, not quite knowing what to make of our chance encounter, she cooked us a lunch of spaghetti alla Bolognese and watched in amusement as we shovelled vast quantities of it down our throats. I couldn’t comprehend what she’d done, try as I might, my world already in a spin after only four weeks on the road.
‘So,’ enquired Mirella as we finished off the last of the pasta, ‘what kind of distances are you guys doing each day?’
The question came with a tilt of inquisitiveness. But there was something else beneath it. Was it suspicion? Amusement? The question was a test, designed to reveal something about the way we were conducting our journey – something that we thought was superficial, but that would tell her a great deal.
‘Hmm . . . about seventy or eighty kilometres on average?’ I haltingly put the figures to Andy and Mark, still having to convert from miles. I supposed that bigger numbers would sound more credible to a world-class veteran like Mirella.
‘Maybe less, actually, I think . . . sixty. Sometimes fifty . . .’
‘It really depends on a lot of things . . .’
‘We’ve never done more than ninety so far, to be honest . . .’
‘We’re trying not to rush . . .’
Mirella had been listening to the excuses we found ourselves making for our disappointing progress, and was nodding knowingly.
‘Good!’ she smiled. ‘Luc and I almost never rode more than fifty kilometres in a day. Sometimes forty, thirty, twenty – it wasn’t important.’
She sat forward in her chair. ‘You know what? There’s really no point in going fast, riding far. We stopped whenever it felt right, even if we’d only travelled ten kilometres. Because it’s when you step off the bike that you’re really in the place. The cycling itself is not the point. It’s not the point at all.’
Mirella gazed up at the ceiling, allowing memories to flood in.
‘We always took our time – camping in wonderful wild places, making friends, spending long periods of time off our bikes. We spent six months on a sailboat in the South Pacific. Another six months on a horse ranch in Australia. Wherever we stopped and dismounted, things would happen. We let people come to us – express their hospitality, be curious. Then we would see the place through their eyes. Eventually we found that we’d travelled tens of thousands of kilometres in that way. But we could never have had those experiences if we had just pedalled like crazy all the time.
‘So you’re really doing a good thing, guys. Keep it slow. Enjoy life.’
After lunch, Mirella invited us into a tiny study with a couple of chairs and an ancient computer, and treated us to an extended version of the slide-show she presented at public events. Image after glorious image, perfect in colour and composition, portraying all the subtleties and spectacles of her and her husband’s filtration through the cultures and landscapes of the world. More than twenty thousand pictures had been captured on traditional negative film, carefully packed away, developed, and boiled down to the selection that now passed before our eyes. These spellbinding photos had been crafted with the considered strokes of a master artist, putting my own efforts at camera work to shame. And the story she wove through the images brought a lump to my throat – as I sat in the tiny study in my sponsored T-shirt, taken far away from Switzerland, to places where Technicolor characters swept through lands of colour and detail, as exotic as distant galaxies. I suddenly found myself fighting back tears.
‘We might not have much in the way of money, or possessions,’ said Mirella, quietly, sitting cross-legged on a folding chair by the computer desk. ‘But we cycle-travellers are rich beyond measure. Because we have all the time in the world.’
It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!