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Riding Home

by englishwildman 

Posted: 31 July 2006
Word Count: 3081
Summary: A chunk from my manuscript about cycling round the world for 4 years. Please let me know what I am doing wrong!

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.


If you’re not hurting you’re not riding hard enough.
If you’re not hungry you’ve eaten too much.
If you’re not cold you’re carrying too many clothes.
If you know you will succeed it’s too easy.

Days are long on the road. Pack up and pedal into the dawn. Ride until sunset. It’s easy to kill time but you can kill distance only by riding. Roads roll on forever, linking and connecting and reaching so far ahead that to think about the end is to think of something that feels impossible. So settle for today, for earning the small distance that the day’s long hours will allow you. Roads drenched with rain, stinging hail, pulsing heat, slick ice, buffeted by winds on loose gravel, deep sand, tangled rocks, thick snow. Roads of smooth tarmac down mountainsides on sunny days with warm tailwinds and scenes of impossible beauty. Roads furious with traffic through grim slums, bland scrub, concrete jungles, polluted industrial wastelands. Monotony in motion. Roads too hard and too long that break you, expose you, scorn you and would laugh at you if they cared. Roads too hard and too long that you pick yourself up from, have a word with yourself, and make it to an end you once doubted. Roads you have never ridden to places you have never seen and people you have never met. Days end. A different sunset, a different resting point, a different perspective. A little less road waits for you tomorrow. A little more road lies behind you.
Choose your road. Ride it well.

Stage 14: “Ethiopia: a beautiful place to be born?”

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half so bad
if it isn’t you.
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“Everybody must get stoned”
– Bob Dylan

How can two sides of one village be so different? One hundred metres from Sudan and I had left behind Islam and North Africa and was into the continent’s heart. The buildings, people and attitudes all felt different. The red dirt road was busy with pedestrians. Barefoot people and donkeys easily outnumbered the few fume-spewing, rattling vehicles. Women walked shaded beneath golf umbrellas, a strange sight in the African sun. Men bore a stout staff across their shoulders, their hands hooked over like wings. In Sudan the ladies flowed in colourful loose robes and men with bushy moustaches glided around in white galibayahs. In Ethiopia the men wore tight little shorts and tattered T-shirts, repaired many times, with a blanket draped over their willowy shoulders. Many wore Leonardo di Caprio T-shirts, presumably a well-meaning bulk foreign aid donation. Some women’s dresses were made from old UN and USAID grain sacks, others wore bright robes swathed tightly round the body, breasts and neck with their slender arms uncovered. Many were strikingly beautiful. Kids were everywhere, running all around me and laughing and shouting “You! You! You!” as I passed. Most of the children wore rags. A few were naked save for necklaces made from things they had found on the road- keys, nuts and bolts or crucifixes. Some were bald, many had Mohican hairdos. The youngest ones ran screaming from my camera. The older ones demanded to be snapped. Everyone was crazy. I loved it.
I stopped, tired, in the next village, about twenty miles down the track. I was beckoned over to a small mud house for coffee. Gratefully I accepted and joined a few men on the end of a low bench outside the door. A crowd huddled around me, staring. They stared in silence making no attempt to communicate. Everything felt different from Sudan. I didn’t even know the word for ‘hello’ in Amharic yet. I smiled and attempted to make a connection. The women had crude blue crosses tattooed on their foreheads and symbols on their knuckles and hands. Then one lady handed me a small baby to hold and everybody smiled. She joked that I should take him with me, take him back home. I looked into his enormous shining brown eyes and imagined how different his life would be in Britain. There would certainly be less time to sit and enjoy coffee with friends.
Inside the door a girl was sitting on a spread of grass, grinding freshly roasted coffee beans in a mortar. The coffee was served black in small china cups, cup after cup, in decreasing order of age. When I returned the baby, gave my thanks for the delicious coffee and left the village a crowd of kids ran around me, laughing and shouting incessantly “YOU! YOU! YOU!” Their novelty was fading. It was baking hot. The road was atrocious. I ignored them. They kept up the mayhem for several miles before I eventually bored them into surrender by resolutely ignoring them and not giving them any sweets.
At sunset I hid away from the road in the rocky, bush-strewn mountains. I brewed a cup of tea while I watched monkeys foraging. In each new country it took a while for me to pick up the vibes and to get a feel for how safe I was. I always began very cautiously and built up to my preferred levels of pragmatic recklessness. Minimise risk, cover your back, plan well, roll the dice. Think carefully and prepare mentally for every potential crisis and then relax and leap in with both feet. I had found a well hidden but rocky campsite behind a small cluster of thorny trees. I did not use my torch. I was tired and could only summon the energy to cook popcorn for dinner and was even concerned that the noise of the popcorn may give away my position. Occasional heavy lorries laboured past up the steep, bumpy track. Later a family walked past babbling loudly to one another. I sat quietly in the dark and listened to the strange sounds of their language trying to imagine what they may be talking about. I kept still until they passed and then rolled out my sleeping bag on the least rocky patch I could find. “I’m in Ethiopia!” I smiled as I fell through my nerves and excitement into sleep.

The ride through northern Ethiopia took me along a boulder strewn, dusty track climbing steadily up into the craggy mountains. The mountains were the largest I had yet encountered. Even in bottom gear I could not pedal up some of the gradients and my arms ached as I pushed my way up the hills. With crunching gears, spinning wheels and straining engines, battered buses would heave and skid past me, drowning me in dust and pumping from speakers on the roof the jaunty, yearning music of Ethiopia, the trumpets, percussion and racing cascades of rising and falling passionate female vocals. The roads were always busy with pedestrians. Ladies carried heavy ceramic water urns roped to their backs or baskets of cow dung on their heads, fuel for cooking. People would bow a greeting as I called out my new-learned hello, “tadiyas!” Many men rode heavy black iron bicycles and one almost crashed spectacularly as he tried to bow to me whilst racing down a gravel track.
I passed regularly through small villages of wood, mud and wattle homes thatched with grass. There was not much human-free space in Ethiopia. Amongst the clusters of homes would be a tiny shop but their shelves were virtually empty. Only stale, cardboard-flavoured biscuits, batteries, a rusting tin of fish paste, combs, blocks of hard soap and candles sat beneath layers of dust. My diet was determined by availability rather than choice. I even ate the packet of sweets that I had hoarded all the way from France. Crowds of kids gathered everywhere I went staring at me with unabashed astonishment. After several days of being the focus of the freak show I began losing my patience and they rapidly became a real nuisance. Some children wondered whether I was Chinese as Chinese road engineers had once worked here. I have never before been mistaken for a Chinaman. And, of all the words in the English language, how had they come to know only “you” and “money”? Children, smaller and skinnier than they should have been, tried to pull things off my bike, ran around me and shouted and jeered and aggressively demanded money. They pushed me up hills which was great, but tried to grab things as they ran. I could not allow my bike out of my sight for a moment, and had to look behind me constantly as I rode. “YOU-YOU-YOU!” they taunted, like a Chinese drip torture. “Shut up, or fuck off” I replied, eloquently. “YOU-YOU-YOU-YOU!” they howled louder. Adults looked on amused when children threw stones at me. In one village howls of encouraging laughter followed a boy as he ran beside me trying to jam a stick in my spokes. I sprayed him in the face with my water bottle, feeling proud of my self-restraint. Crowds of gawpers would gather whenever I stopped, staring and making jokes about the ‘ferenji’. I could not hide. Thomas Stevens, the grand-daddy of bike riders, once had occasion to rant in Turkey “as I mount, the mob grows fairly wild and riotous with excitement… rushing up behind and giving the bicycle smart pushes forward in their eagerness to see it go faster, and more than one stone comes bounding along the street, wantonly flung by some young savage unable to contain himself.” 150 years later in Ethiopia, I knew how he felt. When Evelyn Waugh was in Ethiopia he wrote, “Most of the time I thought about how awful the next day would be.”
What struck me was that there seemed to be no notion that all this was not gracious behaviour. It was all so different to Sudan. It is rare in the world to encounter begging in rural areas (except where tourism has previously ventured) but in Ethiopia people demanded cash everywhere I went. A man, sucking on a cigarette, pushed through a crowd in front of me and demanded bread. His look of arrogant, righteous expectation infuriated me and I stuck two fingers up at him. “No, no,” he assured me, he only required one loaf from, not two.
People seemed to have lost the desire and urgency and dignity required to sort their problems out themselves. There was a reek of dependence. Ethiopia was the poorest country I visited and it was hard to imagine that changing. Of course, I was in Ethiopia for only a few weeks so it is reckless and unfair of me to generalize, but I could not ignore that the atmosphere and attitude felt different to elsewhere. The huge input of unquestioning, unconditional aid by Western countries (generalised as being ‘white people’) seemed to have bred a generation of Ethiopians who wanted to be rich, but they didn’t want (or feel the need?) to put in the effort to help themselves. Why manage the village water supply carefully when someone will give you bags of grain for nothing? I felt in Ethiopia that I was a mere mobile cash point and too many people felt that they had a right to be bankrolled by me. I could not make contact. I did not feel as though I was regarded as a fellow human being. I decided, and continued this around the world, to give no money to individuals, to give nothing except time and smiles. As the days ground by I longed to be alone, to have some space, but people would even follow to watch me taking a shit. People everywhere, shouting for money, palms outstretched, laughing at me, jeering. “Money! Money! Money!” How did tiny children know to run at me demanding like that? In the 1970’s Ted Simon rode a motorbike round the world and wrote about his experiences in Jupiter’s Travels. He wrote: “in Ethiopia for once I allowed myself the luxury of a generalization. Two words described them all for me.
Fucked up!”

People were hungry. They had nothing. No money, no work, no hope. So what did they see? A tourist cruising through their lives, taking photos, looking all around in grim fascination, a white boy from the wealthy west passing through their world on a hugely laden, shiny bicycle carrying, no doubt, an incredible wedge of money. This is the worst aspect of being a tourist, that, as Jim Caird wrote, you become “an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you”. It is to their credit that nobody just kicked the shit out of me and took my money. Tiny mud homes and large, struggling families, whips cracking the hot air above oxen hauling wooden ploughs across dry, shallow soil, barren land hoed by skinny children, empty shops and empty eyes. I had seen an 1841 lithograph of an Ethiopian ploughing scene. And nothing had changed today. Nothing except that early visitor’s praise of the Ethiopians’ “scrupulous politeness towards strangers.” The initial friendly people who had invited me for coffee seemed like an anomaly now.
Overwhelmed by the loneliness of crowds, I stopped riding and sat down on the dirt track. I hid my tears behind my sunglasses and big hat as the inevitable crowd gathered around, emerging from nowhere to buzz around me, prowling, frolicking, probing, sniggering, provoking. In the midst of these crowds I felt isolated, out of my depth, out of control and alone. My ride felt shallow and indulgent.
But salvation came along in the form of Peter, the local teacher. Seeing me amongst the crowd he picked me up and took me to his home, a small mud hut beside the two-room school. I could sleep on his floor, he said in good English. He shooed away the gawping gathering outside his door and I began to unwind. I was keen to talk properly with somebody in Ethiopia, to connect with somebody and to learn about their life. Peter’s wife and child lived away in Gondar with her parents so he only saw them every few weeks. The government had not paid his pittance of a salary for three months yet he was still working. He taught a primary education to the 150 children in each class- one class in the morning, the other in the afternoon- with no textbooks or equipment. In each class the pupils ranged in age from 8 to 20. The students only came to school when their family could spare them from tasks such as ploughing or tending livestock so attendance was rarely continuous. Some had to walk 20km to school and then back home again afterwards.
Peter talked about his country, the beautiful mountains and greedy politicians. He talked about the vicious famine that brought Ethiopia to the attention of all kids my age in England in 1984. We gave our pocket money and then turned shocked and embarrassed away from the TV as we tucked into our fish fingers and baked beans. Six months after the Ethiopian government had appealed for international assistance the unforgettable images of the famine burst on to our television screens and Western governments began to act. Michael Buerk from the BBC spoke of a “Biblical famine, now, in the 20th Century… the closest thing to hell on Earth… death is all around.” That year Europe had a record harvest with huge stockpiles of surplus grain. The Ethiopian government’s relief coordination was incompetent and food aid was diverted away from famine victims to feed troops fighting a twenty year civil war. 8 million people were at risk and, while the UK public gave £5 million in three days, government response to the Marxist country was still low-key. By December, spurred by Bob Geldof’s furious efforts, the Western public had donated more than £100m but the Ethiopian government continued to divert aid supplies to its troops. More than a million people died in that famine. Now I was being hosted by a man the same age as me who had lived through it. I sat beside him on his bed and listened to him tell me about the brother and sister he lost that year.
The hut was lit by stubs of candles and shadows flickered on the dark grass roof above us. The walls were papered with newspaper. The furnishing was a single bed, a wooden chair and school desk, a bowl on the mud floor holding plates, mugs and cutlery and a couple of books on a shelf. I loved the Amharic script in his books, beautiful and unintelligible to me with letters like chicken wishbones. Peter was teaching himself extra mathematics in the evenings to improve his teaching skills. Strips of raw meat hung drying from the roof. Peter saw England as a land of incredible wealth. He had heard that in the West people even left food outside to feed wild birds. He found it hard to accept that there were homeless people and beggars in England. However he absolutely refused to believe me when I told him that most of them were white. “Impossible!” he declared. He could not even imagine a poor white person.
We sat side-by-side and ate injera and a spoonful of boiled cabbage with our hands. It was the Easter fasting period in Ethiopia during which no meat is eaten. As large as a family pizza and flat as a pancake, injera is served with every meal in Ethiopia. It is a pancake-like bread made from teff, a fine millet flour. It serves as bread, tablecloth, plate, cutlery and napkin all in one. Injera has the complexion of a pasty acne-scarred office worker or the face mask of an alien in a very cheap horror show, the texture of a woopee cushion and the taste of sour silage. It’s an acquired taste.
After dinner we blew out the candles- we both had an early start the next day. I hoped to reach Gondar and Peter had another busy, unpaid day at school. I slept on the floor, reassured that you will find kind people anywhere in the world and reminded of the steep learning curve of travel that I was on.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 17:00 on 09 August 2006  Report this post

Why on earth would you think that you are doing something wrong? This is beautiful! Beautifully written, beautifully crafted, so honest, moving, elemental, true...

Having done some travelling in poor countries (though nothing on the same brave scale as you) I empathised utterly with the description of the desperation which being endlessly harrassed engenders. You evince it so powerfully.

I suppose that the 'what am I doing wrong?' query might come from rejection by publishers and agents. Well, what do they know? If the rest of your manuscript is on this literary level it should most certainly be published.

Please persist!


englishwildman at 18:37 on 09 August 2006  Report this post
thanks, Richard!
Much appreciated burst of enthusiasm..

Prospero at 04:35 on 15 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Alistair

I was priviliged to visit Thailand just a month after the Tsunami. The devastation was horrific, the simple courage and strength of the local people awesome. At one beach where the ground level had been lowered a metre and where hundreds had drowned in a super-market basement already work to re-build was in progress.

I visted a fishing village where they gave us precious bottled water and showed us their injuries. A man was building a wooden fishing boat by hand, while across the inlet I photographed a similar boat smashed flat by the waves.

A hotel manager explained the importance to the area of tourists. 'If the tourists do not come, we cannot sell fish in our restaurants, if we cannot sell fish we do not buy fish. If we don't buy fish, the fisherman cannot sell fish, if the fisherman cannot sell fish, they cannot buy rice and grain for their families. Everyone goes hungry. We need the tourists. Please come.

While we were in Thailand we bought and ate as much fish as we could.




Sorry, I meant to add. An honest, direct, factual warts and all account like this is infinitely more valuable than any number of sanitised documentaries.

Well done and keep up the good work.



sammymac at 14:31 on 29 September 2006  Report this post
I REALLY like your writing, if this were a book then I would be really keen to read the entire story.

Really great, you should DEFINITELY carry on. I cant pick any faults.


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