She was wearing a freshly ironed orange blouse and a matching navy blue wrapper with orange fishes swimming in it. Sitting on a bike-taxi riding in the hard shoulder just ahead of the white woman on a bike, her hair was an elaborate maze of small plats gathering at the nape of her neck to form an elegant bun. The woman was riding side saddle, her back straight, she was looking with curiosity at this scruffily dressed white woman huffing and puffing as she pedalled up hill on her heavily loaded bicycle. After a while, the woman looked straight into the white woman’s eyes and rubbed her thumb against her middle and index fingers in that universal sign for money and in perfect English said “Give me your money”.
“Give me your money”, “Give me money”, “Give me your bike”, “Give me one of your bags”, “Give me a bottle”, “Give me water”, “Give me food”. I heard those demands hundreds of times a day as I threaded my way down Malawi. They came mainly, but not exclusively, from children. They were never aggressive but by gosh were they persistent!
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, third only after South Sudan and Burundi and the only one which has not had a war. A country where one in ten of the population live with HIV/AIDS, where nearly 83% of the employed population live on less than the equivalent of 3.10 USD per day and where in 2015 it was estimated that nearly 60% of the population didn’t have access to proper sanitation facilities. I didn’t know any of these facts before I came into the country but as soon as I crossed the border I could sense there was a difference between Malawi and the other countries I had been to in Africa.
There was the obvious physical difference, I was leaving behind the Tanzanian mountains with their beautiful tea plantations and cool, clean air to encounter a dry, hot, flat and dusty valley, but it wasn’t that, there was something about the place, about the villages with their grass roofed huts and the big cassava plantations that was rattling me.
Aware of this feeling I made my way to Lake Malawi. I had reached the southernmost lake of the East Rift Valley which I had first joined in Kenya more than 3,200 km away. Lake Malawi is the third largest and the second deepest Lake in Africa and I was intending to have a holiday by its shores having heard from other travellers about its nice campsites, gorgeous white sand beaches and stunning sunrises.
It was in one of those campsites that I met Willie. Willie had opened a campsite popular with overlanding cyclists a few years earlier. A white South African man in his 70s sporting a big beard, Willie had strong opinions which I got to hear when at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning I sat with him to have coffee. I heard how he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, how the world was created in seven days just as the Bible tell us, how all the signs are here that the second coming in near. I heard about the corruption, ignorance, superstition and laziness prevalent in Malawi. On seeing the burning of the grass in the local mountains, I heard the red anger in his voice when he asked his employees “why do you burn the mountains? Why? Why? For six hours I listened to his theories being both fascinated and uncomfortable.
” If you get a chance go to Livingstonia” told me Peter and Colleen, two cyclists my age from whom I have received a lot of help and advice. I said goodbye to Willie, jumped on a pick up truck full to the brim of things and people and bumped along an extremely steep ‘road’ towards the village. The pick up truck was slipping on the loose gravel, it had to do three point turns in some of the hairpin bends and at times, its wheels were too close to the precipice for my comfort. I breathed a sigh of relief when finally I arrived at my destination.
Livingstonia, where the missionaries of the Free Church of Scotland moved to escaping from the malaria mosquitos prevalent by the lake, looked as if it was suspended in the past with its small red brick cottages, red brick church and hospital. I was expecting to see the missionaries in their 1880s clothes each time I turned a corner but instead I was greeted by loudspeakers blearing out kwa ngwaru, a song I’ve been hearing everywhere since I entered Tanzania. The music was loud but it couldn’t detract from the views of the lake below and the terracing in the slopes around the village.
Something other than the altruism of the missionaries was moving me now – the quest for a supermarket! Mzuzu, Malawi’s third largest town held the promise of one. I’d been hearing about its existence from my first day in Malawi and I couldn’t wait to get there. Other than cassava, the only ingredients I found on the road were tomatoes and onions and nice as they were I was getting bored of pasta with tomato sauce, rice with tomato sauce, bread with tomato sauce…75 km of dirt road would be no obstacle to reach my objective!!
I get very excited at the thought of a supermarket. The idea of walking down its aisles full of goods, fridges with yogourth and cheese. A place where one can buy breakfast cereals and were there is refrigerated meat that hasn’t been hanging in the sun covered with flies. Each time I find one I religiously walk down each single aisle even those that have items that I don’t want or need.
And finally, here it was, its interior full of goods beckoning, its cool air reaching me through its open doors, the glow of its fluorescent lights illuminating the “SPECIAL OFFER” signs.
Dirty and sweaty, I hovered at the door anxiously looking for a safe place to leave my loaded bike to be able to dive in and there was none. I must have been a strange sight as shoppers going in and out started giving me funny looks. Finally I had to admit defeat, turn my back on the door and direct my wheels to the campsite.
Like all the other Malawi campsites I stayed in, the one in Mzuzu was run by foreigners – white South Africans, Germans, Americans. Designed with mzungu clientele in mind they all were clean and comfortable, hot water, drinking water on tap, cold beers, varied menus, beautiful lawns and in all of them the prices, compared to local earnings were astronomical.
In Malawi inequality stared at me on the face more than anywhere else in this trip and that’s why it didn’t come as a surprise when on my last day in the country, a little girl who had run from her hut to the road with huge strides said: “Give me MY money” as I passed by her.
When I heard the sound of the Liemba’s horn, I was in that in-between state when one is neither fully awake nor fully asleep. For a while I wasn’t sure whether I was dreaming, but when I felt the vibration of the anchor’s chain I knew I was awake: The MV Liemba was having its first stop.
Originally called the Graf von Goetzen, the Liemba was one of three vessels the German Empire used to control Lake Tanganika in the First World War. When the Germans retreated from Kigoma in 2016 , her captain sank it to stop the British getting control of it. It lay in the bottom of the lake until 1924 when a British Royal Navy salvage team raised her and in 1927 she returned to service as Liemba. Its history since then is fascinating.
I first heard about her from Dakin, a South African overlander that I had met in my first few days in Uganda. Right away it captured my imagination. Wouldn’t it be amazing to go on a ‘cruise’ on the last vessel of the German Imperial Navy still actively sailing anywhere in the world? Now, here I was, leaving one of its cabins to see what was happening outside.
When I got out of the cabin the excitement of the other passengers was palpable, the sound of voices was becomig louder, everybody was pushing and shoving to find a good place to see people and goods embarking and disembarking and instructions were being shouted left and right whilst the golden flood lights of the ship illuminated the whole scene.
Around us, in the water small canoes were receiving those leaving the ship and bringing goods for us to carry down the lake. I was ribbeted, witnessing this made me instantly forget how hard it had been the bike ride to get to Kigoma, the Tanzanian port from where she sails.
I had crossed into Tanzania from Rwanda where I only stayed for a few days. Rwanda is a country full of bike-taxis going up and down its many hills loaded with passengers. The passengers get off and walk when the hill is too steep for the taxi and then jump back on when it’s time to go down hill. When they are not carrying people, the bikes don’t stay idle and they carry water or any other goods.
It didn’t take me long to get to Kigali, the capital, with its modern buildings and traditional cloth market. Rwanda has banned the import of second hand clothes to protect the local fabric industry. Other countries in the region tried that approach but the big foreign players didn’t want Africa to stop the huge imports of used clothes and accessories (Kenya alone imported 100 metric tons in 2015) and threatened to get the countries out of the African Growth Opportunity Act which grants duty free access to US markets for items like oil. Isn’t that a surprise!?
Out of four East African countries, only Rwanda stayed strong and maintained the ban and as a result, its markets are full of traditional fabrics and men and women sitting at old fashioned sowing machines creating all sorts of garnments.
I stayed in Kigali for a few days enjoying the company of Desire and Inmaculate, the friendly hostel staff and making the best of fast Internet access. I hadn’t had a chance to back up my photos since Nairobi and who knows when there will be fast enough connection again. There is so much we take for granted at home – you open the tap and clean water you can drink comes out, flick the switch and the light goes on, go to the supermarket and find exactly what you want. On the road everything takes ages: filtering water, washing your clothes, looking for ingredients to cook…but if there is something I have plenty off nowadays is time, so all is well.
Eventually I peeled myself from the comfortable hostel in Kigali and began cycling towards the Tanzanian border.
As in every country I have been, it is amusing to see how men on bicycles are truly put off when they see an older woman overtaking them or steadily climbing up hills without getting off the bike (never mind that I don’t carry the loads they do and my bike has wonderful gears).
One particular man stuck in my mind. He was wearing red trainers and a red top and his red underpants where showing. I passed him climbing up a hill and he tried to catch up with me, overtaking me when I stopped to take some photos. I kept going slowly and he kept on looking back, his calves straining, their veins and muscles bulging. At one point he was zigzagging wildly across the road and kept looking back whilst I continued climbing at my snail’s pace.
Around this time I began to get really annoyed with all the wolf whistling, all the heys and oys, all the cat calling I get from men as I cycle along. Such a difference from women who greet me or respond to my greetings in a dignified way. I decided to totally ignore their whistling, their heys and oys, their cat calling but they refused to be ignored and their calls got louder and louder and followed me as I cycled away from them.
Some of the roots of my annoyance were in the injustice of seeing women and girls in every country always working – carrying wood and water, washing clothes and cooking outside their homes, looking after children, working in the fields, whilst men sat in the shade of trees and bus stands, or in bars and cafés talking and seeing the world go by. Watching tiny girls carry heavy buckets of water on their heads whilst grown up men looked on made me angry.
Firm in my resolution I reached the Tanzania border. As soon as I crossed the border the roads became pretty poor. The road I had to follow to reach Kigoma and the Liemba was a red earth road going through a remote area in the west of the country. Washboards and sand became my daily companions making the cycling hard. Each time a vehicle went by I was enveloped by a cloud of dust that got into my eyes and my nostrils, caked my skin and stuck to hair.
The road was kind to me though and at the end of each day, dirty and tired, I always found a place to sleep in the smallest of villages. The guesthouses where I stayed were very basic and more often than not I would set the tent on the bed to keep out unwelcomed creatures sharing the room with me. Every single day, I was grateful to have found a place and after having a bucket shower, cooking and eating dinner with what little I had left in my panniers and inside the safety of my tent-cacoon I had a wonderful night sleep.
Slowly the vegetation changed and huge golden bamboos and palm trees replaced the low acacia shrubs found in the higher ground. The huts in the villages didn’t change though, they continued to be small dwellings with corrugated iron or grass roofs and dozens of children around them that on seeing me would run to the road shouting “Mzungu, mzungu!!” Like a Mexican wave “MZUNGUUUUU” followed me from hut to hut but if I stopped…if I stopped the children would run away in fear, the youngest crying and calling for their mothers.
As I approached Kigoma what changed was the road, the red earth disapeared and grey tarmac replaced it. Without the red earth the villages suddenly felt less remote, it was as if I was back in the modern world and I hoped that the tarmac would bring an easier life for people in the region.
The tarmaced road took me to Kigoma where I could have a few days rest before boarding the Liemba. And, as luck would have it, I was going to have company too. Dakin, that more than one month before, had told me about the Liemba had managed to get Viv, his Toyota Landcruiser, booked in the same sailing as me and we would be travelling together.
It was nice having company. In the couple of days we had before setting off we cooked together, watched sunsets by the lake, went to the tailors, had a haircut (the second on the road) and tried to keep the vervet monkeys from stealing our food.
Finally the day for departure arrived and from the platform by our first class cabin we watched anything and everything being loaded: hundreds of pineapples, avocados, tomatoes, flour, plasterboards, wicker baskets, jerrycans of fuel, soap, detergent, plastic chairs…The Liemba is the lifeline to the fishing communities that live in the shores of Lake Tanganika. Twice a month, it provides them with the only contact they have with the outside world. Not only it brings them things they need but by taking their bales of dry fish it gives them access to makets.
After that first stop the Liemba stopped 13 more times before finally arriving at Kasanga, my final destination. Each stop was as exciting as the fist one and after each stop the deck got a little bit more empty, the mountains of pineapples sold along the way to the fishermen that came to bring their fish and to take people ashore.
Kasanga was another village lost in the middle of nowhere, the only difference between it and the others we had stopped at is that it has a road that links it to the outside world. A road I would take on my way to Malawi. It was time to say goodby to Dakin and take to the road.
“If you are going to your tent now, mind he hippo” told me the friendly Italian who, impressed by my bike journey, had invited me to a beer. I leaned over the balcony of the restaurant and sure enough a huge hippo was happily munching grass just outside my tent. Nothing for it but to wait until hippo finished its meal whilst I continued my conversation about bike travels in Africa with Alco the Dutch cyclist also staying at the campsite.
I was at one end of the Kazinga channel in the West of the country, very close to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kazinga Channel is a beautiful stretch of water joining Lake George with Lake Edward.
Only three days earlier I had been in the Channel with Ngozi, a friend from London who had come to Kampala to join me for a few days. The channel is full of life – hippos and elephants everywhere. So much wildlife that I was like a child not knowing where to look, going from one side of the boat to another I wanted to take it all in, fix it in my memory forever .
My encounters with wild life in Uganda started right on my first day when camped on the lawn of the beautifully landscaped gardens of a hotel I had a whole family of blue balled monkeys greedily eyeing my bananas and not going away even when I tried to scare them off. Monkeys here don’t scare off easily, it was funny to see big lorries having to stop after noisily blowing their horns to get a family of baboons off the main road without success. I quickly got used to seeing them on the roads each time I went through wooded areas and was happy to see that they didn’t pay any attention to me.
The monkeys didn’t pay any attention to me but people, in particular children, came running to the road to call out mzungu (White skin) and wave as did street sellers. Stalls selling fruit and vegetables where easy to find, as we’re the chapatti makers in the bigger villages. Chapattis in Uganda are not like the ones we get in Indian Restaurants in the UK, they are thick and oily and made with egg. I loved those gigantic pancakes cooked in a griddle by the side of the road. The ready access to food made me feel at ease and relaxed.
The number of cyclists on the road also made me feel at ease. I saw bikes everywhere heavily loaded with everything imaginable charcoal sugar cane, maiz, mattoke (green bananas). The country is very hilly and the roads are a constant rollercoaster so I often saw cyclists pushing their bikes up the hills, their bodies nearly parallel to the road on the steepest ones.
It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the fact that there would not be flat riding in Uganda, the ups and downs were constant. I have mixed feelings about hills, on the one hand I do find them hard to climb but on the other the hilly terrain makes the landscape more interesting and Uganda is a truly beautiful place. I was happy to know that I would be sharing its beauty with a friend.
Ngozi arrived in Kampala with her bike excited and apprehensive and after a day’s rest we were ready to go. She had never toured before and had to get used to her loaded bike and I had to get used to being with someone else. Together we had to find a rhythm that would suit us both. It wasn’t long before we found it – a good breakfast, some cycling, lunch of delicious avocados and chapattis by the side of the road, usually in a village, more cycling and at some point in the afternoon deciding where to spend the night.
Being with someone who had never toured was like having a mirror put in front of me. I think nothing of the drop toilets and bucket showers found in the cheap guesthouses that are my staple accommodation, of camping in dusty police stations, of the uncertainty that fills each one of my days on the road. Seeing Ngozi’s reactions made me realise how used I have become to this way of life, how much I have changed. Living with uncertainty is no longer the challenge it used to be.
Not all is uncertainty though, I knew I wanted to go on a game drive and when best to do it than when I had someone with whom to share the experience with. It was really nice to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park with Ngozi, to have someone to turn to when seeing a leopard sleeping in a tree, elephants walking by the water or hippos sunbathing.
But then it was time for Ngozi to return to the UK and when I crossed the Ecuator for the third time I was on my own. The awareness that it would be months before I saw the familiar skies of the Northern hemisphere again hit me. For months to come the Southern Cross would become familiar company in the night.
It felt right to start this new phase of my journey crossing the National Park on my bike, first in a tarmaced road and then through 74 Km of dirt road. I was quite nervous when it came to riding the later. I had been told to be careful with elephants and buffaloes that are abundant in the area as they are known to charge. And indeed there was a lot of evidence of their presence, piles of dung and heavy footprints where everywhere. I keep on listening for them and was delighted when I reached my destination without any close encounter.
The ride was memorable, clouds of white butterflies feeding on the elephant dung took flight as I passed by and enveloped me, savanna, thick forest, monkeys, impalas…So much nature and wildlife all around me. At times I felt I was disappearing in the middle of it all, it was as if I was becoming part of the forest, the savanna, the river.
The forests in Uganda are incredibly lush and their impossible slopes they provide sanctuary to the mountain gorillas, an endangered species, according to the last published census there are only 880 left in the world. How could I be in this country and miss out the opportunity to pay them a visit!?
To get to one of the only two surviving populations I had to get to the remote Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, climb steep gradients in dirt roads and then walk for hours into the forest. I knew I would find the ride too hard but was more than ready to push my bike for hours to get there so I was delighted when a local told me about the tea trucks that go to the very remote mountain villages to collect tea from small tea growers. I made up my mind: Foxtrot and I would find a way to get a lift in on one of the tea trucks.
The two of us waited patiently outside the Kayonza Grower’s Tea Factory and when the truck going in the right direction left the factory we managed to get on it. When empty of tea, the trucks provide transport to people from the remote mountain hamlets and settlements. Villagers and their possessions came on an off the truck in each of the hundreds of stops it did along the way.
All around the red earth road, in impossible slopes, villagers were clearing the forest for cultivation, carrying jerry cans of water, picking and carrying tea. On the lorry I was trying out my newly acquired local vocabulary to the amusement of my travel companions who laughed heartily, holding their sides, each time I uttered a word.
It was unreal when the following day I found myself tracking the gorillas in the forest. The light was filtering through the huge tall columnar trees with bare trunks and a crop of leaves at the top. There was not a square centimeter that was not covered with some sort of vegetation. We crossed swampy terrain, climbed up and down incredibly steep slopes following the rangers that were opening the way through the forest with their machetes.
The encounter with the first gorilla was unforgettable, Kabandize a young male was lying down looking at us with lazy eyes that seemed to be saying “Oh bother, here are the humans!”
Not far from him was Rukara, the silver back and leader of the group with the oldest female in the group and her baby, a delightful one year old.
The gorilla group kept on moving fast through the forest and with the trackers hacking away at the forest with the machetes we followed on their path. After one hour with these incredible creatures we said goodby to them and turned back the way we came.
The feelings of the experience stayed present and I knew I needed time to let it all sink in. I turned my back on Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and reached a small island in Lake Buyonyi. Swimming in the second deepest lake in Africa (900 mt) surrounded by bird song and knowing that no hippos would come to my tent was the perfect ending of my time in Uganda.
By the time I got to the Guesthouse I was cursing myself. Why on earth did I buy that half a kilo of sugar? As I was paying for it I already knew that I didn’t need it because the day before I had bought some honey from one of the women selling it by the roadside.
My panniers were already heavy enough with all those just-in-case things I have with me. Why do I carry so many just-in-case things? Is it my attempt to live this nomadic life by the standards of my sedentary life? or Is it my way to make ordinary this extraordinary journey? or do I need all those things to feel safe?
It was quite clear that I didn’t need to carry so much food in a country like Kenya where there are small roadside stalls and shops everywhere selling everything I need for my daily living, not to mention the cafés with cheap, delicious stews and milky sweet teas that I have become addicted to.
After Ethiopia, Kenya felt like a rest. The contrast between the two countries was staggering. From the moment I crossed the border I entered a different world where people helped you with a smile and didn’t ask for money, children waived as I went by shouting “mzungu” (white skin) and the prices remained constant.
One thing that strikes you right away about Kenya is how clean it is. Plastic bags were banned nearly a year ago with strong penalties to those disobeying the ban. The results are incredible, the roadside is clean, there are no plastic bags flying on trees, there are no more ‘flying toilets’ (people used to defecate in a plastic bag, tied and knot and and then threw it away) and people talk about how plastic is bad for the environment. I wish more countries followed Kenya’s lead.
Although roads are clean, the same could not be said of some guesthouses that looked seriously dodgy, particularly in small villages. When I felt my health would be better served by staying in my tent, police posts and police stations became my default camping spots. Their hospitality was fantastic. I was always received with a smile and given water to cook and wash with and in a couple of occasions they even gave me an empty room to sleep in.
Police posts provided continuity to the changes in landscape and people as I crossed the country. In the North I was struck by the traditional costumes of the Samburu people and their colorful jewellery. Sheperds would come onto the road dressed in full regalia with big machetes hanging round their waist and looking quite fierce as they demanded water, sometimes quite aggressively. I learnt to scan the scrub for livestock and listen carefully for the sound of the bells around the cattle’s neck. I would then get ready to throw one of the small bottles of water that I carried in my handlebar bag as soon as I saw the sheperds coming towards the road and quickly make my scape.
In Samburu county I went to Umoja Women’s Village, a women only village set up 28 years ago to provide refuge to women victims of domestic violence, rape and female genital mutilation. The women make their money by selling traditional jewellery and by running a nearby campsite. They used to have cows but after the village got raid by cattle thieves it became too dangerous to own animals and now they have none.
I stayed in one of the village huts. The hut was built with sticks and dung and had some plastic sheeting in the roof for waterproofing. It was very dark inside and at night small coppery crockoaches took over the place. It was sobering to experience the environment in which these women live and to be invited for tea at Rose’s hut and see how little they have and how they live one day at a time buying enough sugar and tea for that day. They don’t need just-in-case things, for them safety is about being together, away from their abusers.
The meaning of what it means to be safe came up again to my mind during a big climb towards the Equator, in an area with huge farms protected by electrified fences and a tea shop that would be perfectly at home in Kent whilst marginal farmers grow potatoes and corn in the barely five meters that separate the road from the electrified fence. That small piece of land where they could grow food was their safety.
By the time I got to Nairobi something had shifted inside me, I relaxed and trusted that the road would meet my needs – a small cafe would appear at the right time, a place where I could pitch my tent, company when I needed it.
And it did! It was really nice to meet Guy again at Jungle Junction, a well known overlander campsite in Nairobi. Guy is travelling from London to South Africa on his motorbike and I had met him twice before, the first time in Gonder and the second in Addis. He was the one that saved the day by giving Amaya a lift to the airport on his motorbike when it was apparent that a taxi would not materialise.
It was bliss doing all those ordinary things that normally I do by myself with someone else without cultural or language barriers: deciding what to have for dinner, shopping, ordering take away pizza and cooking together. I was tired and needed some down time and when best to have it than when there is good company.
By the time Ieft Nairobi I was re-energised and when round a corner I was regaled with the most amazing view of the Great Rift Valley I had to stop to take it all in. The view was breathtaking but it was the realisation that I was in Africa, in the Great Rift Valley that was joyful and overpowering.
The next few days were filled with the same childlike joy especially at Kilimandege House, the place where Joan Root, the film maker and conservationist, lived and died. Sitting in her baranda at dusk I saw giraffes, hippos, zebras, water bucks, dik-diks whilst in the day monkeys came into the kitchen to steal bananas.
Kilimadege House is a magical place where the animals roam freely without the restrictions of electric fences. The house is being lovingly restored by Joseph and is an oasis of peace. It was very special to see Joan’s bedroom where she was murdered for her commitment to conservation but also where dreams and plans for the wonderful films she created with Alan Root were born.
Maybe it was my new state of mind but things just got better and better – a meeting with Asier, another basque cycling in this amazing continent, pink flamingos in Lake Bogoria, majestic acacia trees, camping in a school where the girls were totally amazed by the whiteness of my feet and kept on touching them, the beauty of Kerio Valley, spending time with the Cheptebo community, dancing on the road with an older woman selling bananas, talking politics with a widow-mango-grower…
As for the bag of sugar? I hope it is being enjoyed by the old man to whom I gave it to after he helped me push the bike for a few meters in a particularly steep stretch of road.
When I opened the door of my room I saw that it was raining again. It was only four in the morning and it was still dark. “The rains are early this year” that is what everybody is saying. The rains transform the paved streets of Addis into chocolate streams and the feet of countless people convert the unpaved ones into sludge. Wim’s Holland House, the overlanders’ hostel that had been my Addis home on and off during my time in Ethiopia, is in one of the unpaved ones.
I pushed my freshly cleaned and oiled bike through the mud until I reached the paved road and rode to Meskel Square, where Foxtrot and I were to board a bus to Arba Minch, a town four hundred kilometers from the Kenyan border. From there I was planning to get local buses all the way to the border, too scared to cycle in this country.
When I entered Ethiopia I was already feelings pretty apprehensive having read and heard accounts of other cyclists. Everybody talked about dozens of children running alongside you shouting “YOU, YOU, YOU” followed by “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” and how some of them delighted in throwing stones at you. Tired of the harassment, the majority of cyclists end up getting buses at some point. Even those who cycle all the way through the country talk in terms of “It wasn’t too bad, the stones only hit us a couple of times” or as Teresie, a young Norwegian I met in Khartoum told me “It was OK, the rocks were quite small and only once a herder used his cattle whip on me as I went by. I was furious, picked up a stone and and followed him only to see that he was about to throw a huge rock at me”
All those stories were playing in my mind when I reached the border at Metema. I hadn’t even crossed the border when I was approached by Ethiopian young men wanting to “help” me cross, get money and get a SIM card expecting payment for their “help” It took more than fifteen minutes of assertively saying “No thanks” for them to get the message and leave me alone.
Not even thirty minutes later, at the ATM, another young man wanted to know whether my card had worked, whether I had Visa or Mastercard and whether he could help me get money out. I could sense how I was begining to build invisible barriers around me and how I was closing down. All it took was for a local to tell me as way of warning “don’t camp in the bush in Ethiopia, you are no longer in a Muslim country” for me to realise that what I was feeling was fear and I hadn’t even started to cycle.
By now I am used to having butterflies in the stomach caused by the excitement mixed with apprehension of entering a new country but I had never felt fear and I knew that unless I managed to control this emotion, it would dominate my experience of the country.
“Open your mind Blanca, open your heart” I said aloud to no one but myself as I pedalled along but however much I tried, I could feel the anxiety drying up my mouth each time I approached a village. Predictably, I was instantly surrounded by children shouting “YOU, YOU, YOU” followed by “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” some of them grabbing at my panniers and although I was spared the stones, I managed to get myself into a real bad estate of mind.
It all came to a head when on the third day I saw a group of older teenagers walking in the middle of the road. I was going downhill and decided to maintain the speed, thinking that they would get out of the way to let me pass but when I saw that they weren’t going to move I pressed the brakes and one of them punched me in the arm. It didn’t hurt much but the little confidence I had left just drained away there and then.
As luck would have it, two Englishmen I had met a couple of days, earlier went pass on a pick up truck and offered me a lift to the nearest big town which I gratefully accepted. That was the end of cycling in Ethiopia for me.
The visit of my daughter Amaya was a godsend and the perfect antidote for the blues that were setting in. Together we explored the magical chuches of Lalibela, stood at the mouth of a volcano, walked through solidified lava fields, saw salt caravans, looked in awe at the incredible landscape of the Danakil Depression, slept under the stars, drunk honey wine, rock-climbed to reach one of the Tigray churches, trekked in the Simien mountains, explored local markets and talked non stop. I felt bereft when I saw her disappearing riding on the back of a motorbike on her way to the airport.
Alone again I decided to explore Harar, a Muslim city in the East of the country, closed to the border with Somalia. It was comforting hearing the call to prayer once more and walking the narrow streets of the walled city.
In Harar they feed the hyenas at night outside the walls of the Old City. According to the locals, they started feeding the hyenas during a 19th-century famine, when the starving animals began to attack livestock and humans and the practice continues until today.
In the dark I took a bajaj (tuk tuk) with Sisay, a local guide, and through bumpy dirt roads we went in search of the hyena man. We found him sitting in a stone with a basket of meat and bones at this side and over dozen hyenas walking around him. The man was whistling and making throaty sounds to get the animals closer. I sat on a rock next to him and he dangled a piece of meat just above my head. One of the hyenas used me as a prop to get to the meat. I could hear the wet chewing of the animal just by my ear, feel her hot breath on my face and smell her foul breath. It was both scary and exiliariting, a unique experience.
It was in Harar where I met Mengistu, an orthopedic surgeon who had studied for 14 years in Cuba and thus spoke perfect Spanish. When I arrived at his house he opened the door with a big smile in his face. Mengistu is one of those rare young professionals who has returned to work in Ethiopia to contribute to improve the situation of ordinary people in the country whilst a lot of his friends stayed abroad working all over the world as anything but doctors.
Mengistu’s wife, Magaris, made coffee, my first coffee ceremony in Ethiopia, the coffee slowly roasted over red charcoal and then pounder with a pestle and morter before being brewed in one of the special Ethiopian coffee pots.
I wish I had been able to meet more people like Mengistu and Magaris, maybe if that had been the case my experience of Ethiopia would have been very different. As was, I found it a challenging country, I got very tired of the constant hassle, of people’s rudness and aggression, of being overcharged (in a disproportionate way), of the harrassment everywhere I went.
And yet, when I got to Arba Minch I changed my mind and decided I wanted to cycle the last few days in the country. I took a couple of buses from Arba Minch to a town called Yabelo to get closer to the Kenyan border and then started cycling. I was enjoying the ride but as it was getting late and I had run out of water I decided to stop a vehicle to get to the nearest town, a place called Mega. A minibus stopped and the driver told me that he was driving all the way to the Kenyan border. I couldn’t resist the temptation and there and then I decided I would stay on and go to the border.
When I sat on the crowded minibus I was overcome by a sense of relief and a lightness of heart that I hadn’t felt in weeks, a smile filled my face and I felt happy. I was leaving Ethiopia!
“Tap – tap – tap” I could hear them landing in the tarpaulin that I had spread under the acacia tree to lie down and scape from the unforgiving sun. I had my eyes closed and didn’t have the energy to open them or to move, even though I knew that if I did they would all go away.
Heat had been my constant companion since I entered Sudan, it was to be expected as it is early summer in this part of the world. In Wad Madani, as I was getting closer to the border with Ethiopia, the thermometer was reaching 46 centigrades at noon. Nothing and nobody moved and the smallest shade was always occupied by a person or an animal, even the long shadows of the electrical concrete posts were crowded, people neatly squatting on a long line along them.
When I got to Wad Madani I booked myself in the poshest hotel in town, the promise of air conditioning and good WiFi too appealing to let it pass. The comfortable bed and the cool water from the fridge an absolute treat.
My night at the Wad Madani Imperial Hotel could not have been more different from my previous one spent in a village family compound. The sun was setting and I couldn’t find an obvious place to camp. I was beginning to get a bit anxious when I stopped at some water jugs to fill up my bottles. A couple of women were filling up too and I asked them whether they knew of a good place to pitch my tent, they pointed at the scrubland across the road but it felt too exposed so I decided to take the plunge and knock at the metal door of the compound next to the jugs. After knocking several times a woman opened the door, she looked at me, smiled and called a second woman.
The second woman was Tagua, she was dressed in an stripy orange and black wrapper and had her little daughter resting on her hip. Tagua had lively eyes, and easy smile and spoke three words of English which instantly made her the interpreter. She readily agreed for me to come into the compound and before I realised I was surrounded by women and children.
The compound was encircled by a high cob wall and it had four or five square boxy buildings inside. Each one was a one room small cube, some were made of cob, others of bricks and they were building a new one of breezeblocks. Plastic sheeting was attached to wooden poles at one end and at the roof of the houses at the other to provide shade to the beds scattered in the ground underneath it. A spotless common latrine sat in one corner of the compound.
The children were keen to help me put the tent up, so many little hands were making it a bit messy . Just at the right time the call to prayer arrived and they all disappeared for long enough to give me time to finish the job on my own. I was nearly there when I heard a chorus of “Blanca, Blanca, Blanca” approaching from the other side of the compound. It was no time before I the women were asking me questions whilst the children thought it was great fun to jump inside my tent.
The women were all very different. There was Taiga, proud of her knowledge of a few English words and the status that gave her being able to ‘talk’ with me, then there was Umahmed always with the headphones on, very much the party girl, humming to the music in her ears and dancing in her black clothes with pink and blue embroidery, Ufag Ahmed Umkamal trying to be aloof and ignore my presence but the fist one to bring a chair to watch me setting the tent and Sutanifur, an older woman on a tie dye wrapper in blue and orange, offering me food and drink.
It had been another hot day on the road and every inch of my body was covered in a film of salt. I needed a wash and Tagua taking control took me by the hand to her cube house an showed me to a concrete extension, gave me a bucket of water and closed the metal door. I took my clothes off and had the most delicious wash listening to the women chatter outside.
When I came out some of the women were lying down in their beds so I thought I could have some time on my own but it was not to be. They came back with me to the tent and watched me whilst I made tea admiring my stove, watched me whilst I eat peanut butter inspecting the tub and delighted that they could read the jar of my Khartoum bought spread. Eventually they all left and I crawled into my tent and had the most wonderful night sleep.
The next day I had to face the extreme heat again. Khartoum and my time with Ann felt like light years away although it had only been four days since I had left the city. I met Ann though a Khartoum Women’s Cycling Group and when she wrote to offer me her place to stay I was delighted. I ended staying with her for one week discovering how much we had in common, planting trees with the children of her school, going for the Wednesday evening women’s ride, doing some radio interviews, meeting some Spanish expats and cooking the first Spanish omelette of this trip.
Khartoum was truly very far away in this environment where the sun seemed to have bleached the colour out of everything, only women’s wrappers and mosques providing a respite for the white dust.
In the North of the country I could still find some golden sands but here it was dust, scrubland and unbearable heat.
Since I had entered the country I had found jars of water everywhere, under trees, in specially made water shelters, outside shops and houses. Whithout that freely available water and in this heat, it would have been impossible for me to cycle through Sudan.
The generosity in the availability of water reflects the generosity of the people of Sudan. Everywhere I went I got welcoming smiles and offers of water and food. I got help pushing my bike when it got stuck in the sand and got my meal paid on my last day in the country when I was totally stuck for cash.
I never felt threatened or unsafe in a country that for a long time has lived and still lives with conflict, violence and war. In Sudan, millions of people have been displaced and the influx refugees from neighbouring countries mainly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic and South Sudan added pressure to their already limited resources. The economic situation made worse by the comprehensive US sanctions only lifted in October 2017.
Life is hard for ordinary people, inflation run at 35% in 2017. Acute petrol shortages generates queues kilometers long at petrol stations, yet someone had the generosity to siphon petrol from his car to my fuel bottle to enable me to cook in spite of my protestations and the fact that he had been queueing for over four hours and had a few more to wait before the tanker arrived and some petrol was made available.
And feeling safe enabled me to enjoy the country and its people, camp in the middle of nowhere and go to sleep under an acacia tree whilst dozens of grasshoppers kept me company.
Tempers were getting frayed. A sandstorm was raging in the desert and dozens of cars and lorries had been stopped at the police checkpoint just after the Aswan Old Dam. The road was closed because it was too unsafe to go in the area. I parked Foxtrot and sat in the shade to wait for the road to open.
The officer in charge exercised his authority with much shouting and gesticulating each time one of the lorry drivers approached him and tried to question the stoppage. By now I’d been sitting for more than three hours and I wondered how long they had all been there.
The sandstorm had started the night before as I was cooking my dinner in the roof of the dilapidated hotel that had been my Aswan home for a few days. I saw the cloud coming down the Nile and descending over the city, a thick fog made out of the finest desert sand was switching off the street lights as it advanced. Soon it was impossible to see more than a few metres in front of me and I retreated to my room with its yellowish paint peeling of the walls and the very dodgy wiring.
It had been unusually hot for this time of the year, the mercuy reaching 40C most days and the heat in the room was oppressive. I switched on the Air Conditioning and the old unit sprang into life filling the room with the sound of a car engine but the temperature barely shifted. What a difference this place was compared to Hannah and Trudi’s beautiful apartment in Luxor where they had let me stay for a few days.
I was pondering about this and about the unconditional friendship I had been offered in Egypt by people I knew and people I got to know, when an offer of marriage woke me up from my reverie. The most senior officer at the Checkpoint was standing near me with Am, the policeman in charge of looking after me. Smiling I asked what was the offer on the table, ‘three camels’ the man said. I feigned utter disgust and sounding extremely offended declined the offer explaining that I was worth much more than three camels. He laughed and very quickly up the stakes to 1000 camels. The bartering would have continued had he not been called away to deal with yet more lorry drivers.
Some lorries started to move and the officer looking after me said “you need to go back to Aswan” I smiled sweetly and very calmly told him I was not going back to Aswan the look on his face was one of “Oh no, this woman is trouble” I told him I was not in a hurry, had a tent and could sleep right there until the road opened. “You can’t sleep here, it is the police” he said “Well, I’m not going back to Aswan” Out came the phone and a call was made, no doubt to one of his superiors, and as if by magic I was allowed to go on.
I took to the road with gusto but it was very hot and I had lost more than 4 hours waiting for the road to open.I was determined to make it to a police checkpoint where I was planning to stay the night but a quick mental calculation told me it wasn’t going to be possible. To make things worse there was a very strong cross wind and when a sudden gust put me on the other side of the road I felt shaken. I was lucky that there was no oncoming traffic as a collision would have been unavoidable. Reluctantly, I accepted a lift from my escorts. Foxtrot was loaded on the back of the pickup truck where it would be looked after by three young officers and I joined Captain Mohammad in the front, my feet resting by a machine gun and a water melon.
Luckily, I was dropped at the place where I had planned to stay and a young man took me under his wing. He chose a good place to pitch my tent away from the wind and where he would keep guard overnight, showed me were the toilets and the kitchen were, what was the right tap to get water for tea and generally made my feel welcome. The others, after the excitement of my arrival, carried on messing about either their guns and dusting their bullet proof jakets. It is amazing the ease with which they handle their weapons, the paint gone and the metal shiny from so much touching.
They invited me to eat with them but as I was too tired, they made me agree that I would have breakfast with them. Breakfast was simple but beautifully cooked: a small pot of refried beans, a salad of salty cheese and tomatoes and copious amounts of bread. I eat little as I was conscious of how little food there was and how these young men must’ve been ravenous.
For once, I was able to leave unaccompanied, such joy to cycle on my own and to experience how people related to me differently, lorry drivers blew their horns in salute and one reversed at full speed to offer me a water melon. I vividly remembered the day when I realised how much the constant police escorts had prevented me from interacting with ordinary Egyptians and how much I missed that interaction. It was the day when I was on my own and had stopped at a village for something to eat. A group of villagers approached me, a man in a donkey cart with his children, a smiley teenager and a man who was a teacher and spoke some English. I was having a really good time talking to them when all of a sudden they all scattered in different directions, I couldn’t understand what was happening until I heard the familiar sound of the police car engine. Clearly they couldn’t be seen talking to me.
My every move was watched, they stopped when I stopped, they watched me whilst I drank, eat felafel, took pictures… Every now and again, childishly, I tried to get some minutes on my own slowing down to nearly a halt, knowing their engines would stall and that they would have to overtake me and wait for me a few hundred meters ahead and as soon as they did and were out of my sight I would stop and look in wonder at the silent desert without the sound of their engines in my ears.
“It is for your safety” they would tell me and they were always polite, smiley and good humoured. When I saw several enormous electricity pilones knocked down to the ground by the massive sandstorm that had left Abu Simbel without electricity I realised that there was some truth in that statement on the day I sat in the shade for four hours getting an offer of marriage and waiting for the road to open.
My time in Vietnam started in Hanoi. I settled myself in a hostel in the old town whilst waiting for my friend Kath who was to join me for a couple of weeks. The day was grey and as I stood in a corner of the Old Town I watched in disbelief the chaos around me: hundreds and hundreds of scooters going in every direction hooting incessantly, street sellers in their conical hats shouting to attract customers, colourful stalls full of Tet (Vietnamese New Year) merchandise, people walking, looking at the stalls and shopping in preparation for the Tet celebrations, cafés, eateries…
Walking at dusk around Hoan Kim Lake, a famous lake in the centre of town, were a sacred turtle used to live, I thought of my daughter Emma who lived in Vietnam for a year and how she would have walked around the same lake and seen the same sights 12 years earlier and all of a sudden I felt really close to her.
I was getting impatient about seeing my friend Kath. On the day of her arrival I sat in the hostel with my eyes peeled in the glass doors looking for the car that was bringing her and Jitterbug, her trekking trike, from the airport. I couldn’t wait to see her face and her smile and then she was there and we hugged and it was as if we had seen one another only a few days before.
Many people would have felt defeated by the challenges life had put in the way of Kath, breast cancer and debilitating osteoporosis that lead to a series of bone breaks and surgeries and the possibility of never walking again. But Kath is no ordinary woman, looking into her eyes I could see her indomitable spirit coming through, the utter determination not to let her injuries get in the way of her dreams. She was always passionate about riding her bike and as she is unable to ride a ‘normal’ bike anymore because of the risk of falling and more bone breaks, she got Jitterbug and the two of them were thirsty for adventure.
We talked and talked, we had so much to catch up on. I got news about her daughters and family, our common friends and inevitably her work and how it is pretty much taking over her life. As the director of Women into Construction, she has made the organisation a success, but it has become a trap and keeps demanding more and more of her. Listening to her, I was glad to be out of that trap, to be on this journey of discovery on my bike which is why I was surprised to feel something akin to regret at not being part of that ‘productive’ world anymore. I have never been happier, the best of me comes out when I’m outdoors and on the move and yet ingrained in me must be this idea that I’m not being ‘productive’
We decided to go to the famous Ha Long Bai. Amidst crazy traffic we crossed Long Bien Bridge, an honour and a pleasure to cross the dilapidated bridge heavily bombarded during the Vietnam war and a symbol of the tenacity and resilience of the Hanoian people.
For three days we cycled through the industrial heartland of Vietnam, dust and continuous hooting as our constant companions; through my rear view mirror I could see Kath relishing the ride in spite of the ugliness of our surroundings. In the evenings we found cheap guesthouses where we cooked our meals and made sure everything was out of reach of the rats that as big as cats were roaming around.
Everyone was enthralled by Jitterbug, they thought it was hilarious, laughter and finger pointing greeted Kath everywhere. In a country where the bike has been the mode of transport until relatively recently, Jitterbug was a magnet and anytime we stopped Kath was surrounded by people wanting to have a go on it.
It was exciting to finally be on the local boat that would take us to Cat Ba Island. The boat sailed through the most amazing of landscapes, karst tower after karst tower raising out of the sea. The ride with no traffic across the island amidst limestone formations and forests in the falling light of the evening was breathtaking.
Kath treated me to a wonderful birthday present: two days in the water, sleeping in a floating homestay. We swam, kayaked, climbed to the top of local mountains in the national park. Kath used her walking poles for extra security any time she was off her trike. The terrain was not easy but her smile was radiant. A water baby she couldn’t resist going in the water at night, with her movements thousands of little stars created by the bioluminescenct plankton surrounded her body and she laughed.
Back in the island we celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese new year and my second new year celebration in less than two months. What followed were interesting bus rides, camping in National Parks, big climbs on our bikes and then, sadly, it was time to say goodbye to my strong travel companion and slowly make my way South.
Meeting strong women became a constant during my time in Vietnam. At the time I didn’t know that would be the case although I should have gleaned it from my visit to the Women’s Museum in Hanoi.
I left Hanoi following the Ho Chi Min highway. The Highway is not to be confused with the Ho Chi Min Trail although some parts of both coincide. The Highway runs the lenght of the country along the mountainous spine of Vietnam, known as the Trường Sơn Range. For much of it the road is well paved and very rideable whilst the bulk of the legendary Trail is in Laos. The Ho Chi Min Trail is an endless number of backwater paths and trails that started near Hanoi and ended near Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) where it deposited weapons into the hands of the communist guerrillas fighting against US and Southern Vietnamese force. Despite intense aerial bombing the weapon caravans continued for years, and gave the Vietcong the means to continue the fight and eventually overcome the south’s resistance.
Several of my daughter’s friends from her time in Vietnam lived in villages off the Ho Chi Min Highway and I plotted my route to be able to meet them.
The road couldn’t have been more different than the industrial areas I had crossed with Kath. This time I was cycling though a rural and verdant landscape of rice fields and crossing small towns and villages to my first destination Van Dinh, where I was going to meet Hien. All I had was her mobile number and all I was told was ‘get to Van Dinh’. I expected a village and was surprised to find out that it was a small town. How am I going to find this woman? I thought. Asking was the only way so I walked into one of the many small phone repair shops that can be found every in Vietnam and using sign language shop I asked the owners whether they could call the number I had. Hien answered, came to the shop on her motorbike and following small roads she guided me to her village and the house in the middle of the fields where she lived.
Like many women in Vietnam, Hien a strong, well grounded young woman, lives a fairly traditional lifestyle still based on Confucian patriarchal values. After marriage she joined her husband’s family household and works as a teacher in the nearby town. She shows upmost respect to her in laws, in particular her mother in law whom the calls mother.
It was festival time in her village and early in the morning I dressed up in traditional Vietnamese costume, the Ao Dai, to walk the streets of the village with other older women and take offers to the Temple. Our offers joined all sort of other offerings in big long tables placed at the Temple’s entrance. All gifts had a little card with the name of the donor in a very public display of generosity.
A concert in the local pond and some hilarious games followed. Imagine some flightless ducks being released in a deep pond and youth jumping in the water furiously trying to catch the ducks! I was in stitches.
I left Hien, the dignified daughter in law, wife and mother that her community expected thankful for her hospitality and the chance to have had a small window into Vietnamese traditional family life.
I continued down the Highway to find the village where Nghia, one of Emma’s closest friends in Vietnam lived. I had heard so much about her over the years that it was emotional to meet her at last.
Nghia is also a teacher. Her and her husband are building a house in a plot of land with a mountain covered in deep forests, a truly beautiful environment. Slowly they are making their dream come true. They want to have a small self sufficient farm with chickens, goats, pigs, a pond with fish, a vegetable garden, fruit trees and eventually space to welcome in travellers.
Nghia does not live with her in laws, she has moved away from this tradition by living just with her husband and her son. Although we didn´t talk much about it I am sure that doing this was not without difficulty.
Vietnamese are very gregarious people, in the streets you alway see groups of people together and when you look inside houses there always seem to be a crowd of people sitting round a matt on the floor eatig and it was not exception at Nghia´s. She is a very popular woman, everybody in the village and beyond knows her and although her house is a bit far from the body of the village, it was always full of people coming and going, having tea, coffee, food… It was wonderful to be surrounded by the laughter and conversation that filled the place.
Nghia works non stop, at home washing, cooking and cleaning, at school preparing lessons, teaching, marking school papers. She takes care of her son and husband, tends to her vegetable garden, feeds the animals, nurses sick puppies, welcomes visitors. Nghia, like so many other women around the world who bear a heavier load than men in balancing work and family, puts a lot of pressure in herself and feels that what she does is not good enough.
I had a great time staying with Nghia, going to the local market where a multitude of people stopped to talk to her, visiting her school, going to the local pagoda and some beautiful caves, climbing the mountain in her land, but most of all I enjoyed her love and hospitality. When we parted we had tears in our eyes and I felt blessed to have met such an special, driven young woman making her dreams for a better life for her and her family a reality.
The ride to Thuy and Nam, the last of Emma´s friends I was going to stay with took me through rice fields nesttled in between huge limestone formations covered in thick jungle. Peasants were busy in the fields planting and feeding the rice that will feed them all year round.
The difference between Thuy and Hien and Nghia could not have been more stark. Here was ´modern´ Vietnam – white car, high heels, fitted red coat, hair cut in a bob and all the stresses of ´modern´life too. Both Thuy and her husband are teachers and also part owners of a company that manufactures bamboo chopsticks and bamboo paper. They share their life between their home in the town and rooms in the company. Thuy has two phones that are riging constantly bringing company´s problems and issues to be resolved, the pressure of the responsibility is etched in her face together with her determination to make the business a success.
Seeing Thuy and Nam take and collect their children to school and nursery, run to their company headquarters at lunch time to check everything was running smoothly, going back home to collect blankets and clothes to spend the night in the company reminded me of the days when my daughters were young and the constant balancing act and stress of being a parent and a full time worker.
In spite of being so busy, they welcomed me with open arms and even found time to take me to a nearby waterfall driving through beautiful bamboo forests dotted with houses on stilts with palm roofs.
After I left Thuy and Nam and as I continued down the Ho Chi Min Highway on my way to Phong Nha to visit some famous caves I thought about how in spite of the difference in the lives of those three young women, they also had a lot in common – their strenght, their strong desire to improve their lives and how very hard they worked for it.
The highway went up and down, to the west the Trường Sơn Range and Laos. As I rode along it so much hit my senses at once that I didn’t know where to look – the villages, the emerald green paddy fields, tea plantations, Christian churches, buffaloes, the scooters carrying anything and everything from pigs, wood, grass, cages full of ducklings and chicks to other scooters and even a full size chest freezer. I loved the cows too. One day I had stopped for lunch by the side of the road when I heard a lorry hooting loudly to some cows that were in the middle of the road, the animals looked lazily at the lorry and didn’t move so amongst much hooting the lorry had to stop. I laughed – Cows 1 – Lorry 0!!
Slowly I arrived in Phong Nha located in the central section of the highway. Forests and caves made it the perfect place to stop for a few days with Jace and Ana also cycling in this part of the world.
My next destination were the Vinh Moc tunnels, a maze of tunnels built to protect the villagers from the relentless bombing that took place there. According to a documentary that I saw at the tunnels the USA dropped 9000 tons of bombs in the area between 1966 and 1972 or the equivalent of 7 tons per person living there. The intensity of the bombing is stamped in the landscape, bomb holes everywhere around me. My skin had crawled every time I saw a badly affected fields but nothing prepared me for the tunnels. Dark and narrow where one could barely stand up they had been home to more than 90 families who disappeared under ground whilst bombs rained relentlessly on them and continued with their lives until they could come out again to work on their fields. Whilst walking the 2 Km of tunnels I felt a powerful mix of sadness and admiration. I imagined the villagers huddled in the dark tunnels, the smell of the latrines and of the bodies damp from the rain and sweat mixed with the smell of fear. I also felt their pride and defiance, digging with rudimentary instruments their underground village, singing, continuing with the schooling of the children. Each time I came to one of the many exits I didn’t want to go back inside but I made myself do it and stay with the feeling. I was glad when I finished my visit.
The documentary I saw showed the contribution of the local women to the war effort and some of the extremely dangerous missions they went on. During the Vietnam war women worked alongside men providing manual labor to keep the Ho Chi Minh trail open, working in rice fields to provide food for their families and the communist troops. Women were enlisted in both the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong guerrilla insurgent force in South Vietnam. Some women also served for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong intelligence services. They fought in combat with other soldiers.
Today over 72% of women have a job outside the home, they make some 70% of the agricultural labour force and over 50% of the overall workforce and yet the gender pay gap is high (nearly 20% on average) and according to the International Labour Organisation this gap is rising. The figures mirror what I saw, scores of women working in the fields, in markets, in food stalls, by their houses cooking and doing domestic chore, looking after their children.
The thought of Karen leaving became more real once we crossed the border into Thailand. Staying present in the moment became more difficult however much we tried, it was like someting had switched in our minds: we were going to Bangkok and Karen would fly back to the UK.
We didn’t know what to expect from Thailand but were struck by the marked difference with Laos. As soon as we crossed the border we found ourselves riding in smooth roads, 7/11 supermarkets everywhere, more cars in one day that we had seen in the whole time in the neighbouring country and …fat people. We had entered a more developed, westernised country. It is not surprising that Europeans love Thailand, it is easy and comfortable country, there are familiar things everywhere and at the same time it is different enough to be exotic.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej had died a couple of months before we entered the country. At the time of his death, he was the longest living reigning monarch in the world, he had been king for 70 years and 126 days. The reaction of the Thai people was moving, everywhere we went people dressed in black, supermarkets emptied at 7pm when workers and customers went out to pray by the altars set up at the entrance to honour the dead king. In Bangkok they moved the location of the bus station to be near the palace making it easier for travellers to pay their respects to the king and food and drink was distributed free for everyone.
We wanted to make sure that Thailand wasn’t just a ride to get to Bangkok and went to visit Khao Yai National Park where we hoped to see elephants and other wild life. Excited we climbed and climbed amongst beautiful vegetation. Since the Pamir, green has become synonimous with life and I find myself thinking how I can transform my London garden to make it a constant reminder of my travels, which plant will withstand the London climate or which one I could use as an alternative. Each time I think about coming home I find myself worrying about what it will be like crossing the border, how Brexit is going to impact on my life. Brexit has become a stormy cloud on this, otherwise, magical journey; questions surface as I cycle along – should I go back home now whilst I still can? should I take the citizenship exam? will they give me problems at the border when I try to get back in? Stubbornly I choose se to ignore the whole thing, I refuse to give up on my dream. My garden and Brexit were filling my mind as we climbed amongst the majestic trees of the jungle.
Our stay in the park wasn’t quite what we had expected, it was a Bank Holiday weekend and thousands of Thai people flooded to the park to spend it outdoors. They came with their barbeques, their cold boxes, their music. Soon our little tents were dwarfed amongst their huge ones and the air was filled with food smells, the sound of children running around, adults laughing and a general festival atmosphere. Of course we didn’t see animals with all that noise but seeing the light of dawn filling the day with colour, listening to the shrieks of the monkeys in the trees, soaking up the atmosphere made our two days there very special.
And then the day came when it was time for Karen to leave, it was emotional . We had shared two months full of laughter and adventures throught which we got to know one another and our friendship grew. We said goodby with the promise to have anoter stretch together in the future. I saw the back of her taxi disapear in the crowded streets of Bangkok and experienced a sense of loss.
It was time to be on my own again but not for long, I would cycle south to Koh Samui to meet with my friend the adventurous Jenniffer Murray who had invited me to spend Xmas with her family. I first met Jeffa when I took part in the Atacama Desert Crossing and felt instantly in love with her indomitable spirit, her zest for life and adventure, her love of challenges, her can do attitude. Something about her chimed powefully within me and bridged our ideological differences.
To cycle to Surat Thani I chose small roads that took me to small beach villages through coconut and palm plantations. The crossing in the slow night ferry from Surat Thani to Koh Samui was perfect. I bought the ticket from a surly man parked by the boat with a parasol and sat to watch the boat being loaded with all sort of goods, scooters coming with packages big and small. When it got close to the 11pm departure time I took Foxtrot on board and settled myself in the wood panelled top section of the ferry where simple mattreses and pillows were provided. Snuggled in my sleeping bag I soon went to sleep with the rocking of the boat and only woke up when we were landing in the island just after dawn.
It was wonderful to see Jeffa again and be welcomed into the heart of her family where I stayed not only for Xmas but also for New Year. I was overwhelmed by their generosity, I had a stocking amongst theirs and presents wrapped under the tropical plants disguised as Xmas trees; I had a turkey dinner and thanks to Siena, her grand daughter I was able to have the 12 grapes of new year; I walked in the beach with Jeffa in the early morning whilst everyone else in the house was still sleeping and I learned magic tricks from Simon, Jeffa’s husband. I was showered with warmth and friendship and by the time I left I felt fully rested.
And there was more love to come. My daughter Amaya and her boyfriend John were coming to Bangkok to spend some days with me. In Bangkok I found a great hostel/bike shop run by Thai cycle tourers, Spinning Bear. Whilst I waited for them with anticipation and found yet another little family. In the hostel I met with Lontxo Rojo who has been cycling for nearly 20 years all over the world, the life on the road etched in his face, years of self suficiency shaping his character and lots of stories to tell. He is heading back to the Basque country with the intention to stay – how do you get used to the walls of a house after so many years of the big outdoors? I have been away for a fraction of his time and sometimes wonder what it will be like for me and can’t quite picture it.
And the day arrived when I met Amaya and John and time flew by. We went to the small island of Koh Kood and spent some precious time together that felt too short. After months of anticipation the days went in a heart beat and yet each of them went by at a slow pace – slow breakfasts, walks to waterfalls, sitting in the sun,catching up on news from home, snorkelling… How can time be running so fast and slow at the same time? It had been a year since I had seen them in Istambul but when I saw their smiling faces at the airport it felt that had been only yesterday. As I cycle along I experience this seemingly contradiction often and ponder about this poorly understood time-space dimension.
It was heart wrenching to say goodby to them but their visit and being showered with love was the priceless gift they left with me. I didn’t take this for granted and I knew I was one of the luckiest women on earth.
By the time I crossed into Laos from China I had been on the road for 464 days. I was really looking forward to being in South East Asia – a gentler climate, lower altitude and above all a cycling companion. I was to meet Karen in Luang Prabang and we would be cycling together for 8 weeks. It was a leap of faith, I really didn’t know Karen, I had talked to her for half an hour at the first UK Cycle Touring Festival a couple of months before I set off on my trip. I remember sitting together at the closing session, I can’t remember what we talked about only that the conversation was easy, comfortable and fluid and on the strength of that we agreed to spend time together on the road.
Excited and apprehensive is possibly the best description of my feelings. I had been on my own for such a long time. I wondered how set I was in my own ways, in all the routines I must have developed without even realising. Had all the thinking I’ve been doing about myself changed me in the way I relate to others? I was worried too about money. On a short trip or a holiday you want and can give yourself treats and I’m very strict trying to stay within my budget in my long haul journey and as a result my standards for the places I eat and where I sleep are fairly low. In the distance Karen was wonderfully reassuring. Full of of those thoughts I cycled to our encounter, already enjoying in my mind the ease of communication, the sharing of the moment, the camaraderie. I was ready for company.
I loved my first few days in Laos, cycling through the tropical forests and mountains in the North of the country. Everywhere I looked was so lush and green as if the earth had let go of all inhibitions and delighted itself creating this verdant place full of huge trees, enormous climbers, gigantic ferns and bamboos, big butterflies. I was captivated by it all and also by what I couldn’t see but knew was there. I could see evidence of the life boiling in the forest everywhere, in the shrill mating call of the cicadas in the trees above my head, in the multitude of dead snakes and giant centipedes on the road and in the sudden movement of the bushes as I went pass.
Every now and again I passed small hilltribe villages, hamlets of stilted houses made of woven bamboo and grass roofs. Women sat in their verandas working on complicated cross stitch embroideries and excited children with big smiles ran to the road shouting Sabaidee (hullo), a welcome word I will hear thousands of times during my stay in the country. Some of the villages had small shops, identifiable by the yellow crates of Beer Lao stacked outside where I was able to buy a cold drink but a lot of the time I had to rely on the odd roadside stalls outside isolated houses selling a small amounts of local produce. I stopped in one of them selling big pomelos, a woman and her four small children were sitting by the house and even before I had a chance to ask for the price of the fruit she offered me two small bananas. I was touched by her generosity, looking at her living conditions I am sure she was part of the over 23% of Laotians living below the poverty line. I thanked her, bought one of her pomelos and sat in her yard to eat it whilst she did her needlework and her bare foot, wild haired children watched me open eyed from the safety of the inside of their hut. Soon, a car stopped and after some negotiations she came back delighted, counting money, by sign language she told me they had bought five fruits, she told me that a few times which made me think this was quite an event. Encouraged by the sale she quickly refilled her stall and came back to the hut with a big gappy smile.
The day before I met Karen I was offered hospitality by a young man who had returned to his village to help his family with the rice harvest. We went down a small path to his house where I met his mother, slight and delicate looking but carrying heavy sacks of rice. After she finished storing the newly harvested rice I went with her to water her vegetable garden, quite an involved job. First she had to climb down a very steep path to a waterhole to switch on a pump attached to a complex system of hoses, then she coupled and uncoupled the hoses until all her small plants were watered. Before going home all the work had to be done on reverse. Whilst we were watering the garden, her husband was in the river trying to catch our dinner.
Dinner was lovely, sticky rice from their fields, wild ‘chicken’ caught in the forest and, as his father had had a lucky day, a freshly caught fish chopped up raw with fresh herbs and lime. Family ties are very strong in Laos and form the basis of much social interaction, the extended family of my host came to watch me eat dinner. I felt very self conscious as they all pointed at me and nodded approvingly each time I put food in my mouth. One of them picked some of the khao niao (sticky rice) and like an experienced sommelier sniffed it, put it in his mouth and gave his verdict: “good rice”.
After dinner I was shown to their indoor shower room, a concrete enclosure with a squat toilet, a tap and a bucket with a scoop. In a country were the majority of rural households don’t have running water and washing takes places in the communal tap, having an indoor shower room is a real luxury and they were incredibly proud of it. And then a bed was made for me, a matt on the floor covered with a mosquito net, a pillow and a blanket made the most comfortable bed ever.
I left the village after saying goodbye to my lovely host family. They had been up since 4.30am the mother cooking more sticky rice and the father fishing. I followed the Nam Ou river downstream on its way to meet the Mekong and soon saw big dam building works part of the development of a seven-dam cascade by China’s Sinohydro Corporation to generate hydroelectric power for an energy hungry society. The human and environmental cost is enormous. Communities of diverse ethnic minorities that have relied for generations on the Nam Ou and surrounding forest resources for food, income and spiritual well-being will be significantly impacted by the dams. In total, 89 villages are expected to be displaced. Will the village I had just stayed in be one of them? and What will happen to the way of life of the family of the village and thousands like them? How many endangered species will disappear?
Pondering all of this I arrived in Luang Prabang and met Karen. Sabaidee, Sabaidee!!! What followed were 8 wonderful weeks of cycling, laughter, camping, friendship, exploring and much more.
We spent the first few days together in Luang Prabang, the capital of the first Lao Kingdom in the 1300s. Luang Prabang is an atmospheric place that we explored to our hearts’ content in between poring over maps, planning our route, getting everything we needed and giving Karen the time she needed to acclimatise.
Getting used to the rhythm of the road with Karen was easy, she is such a considerate, easy going, generous soul, I couldn’t have hoped for a better companion after my months of solitude. It was so nice to have someone to turn to and be able to say: “look how beautiful”, someone to share the ordinary everyday things with.
On our first night on the road, we camped and I slept like a baby, didn’t hear the night time visitor that disturbed Karen, seemingly interested in her sky blue Roberts bike. What difference it made to my sleep being with someone else! In the morning a guy approached our tents insisting on offering me money whilst pointing to the inside of my tent. It wasn’t until Karen pointed it out and I read other accounts of women that I realised he was after early morning sex. He was quite harmless but I it was just unbelievable!
Beautiful landscapes of rugged mountains, huge karst towers covered in jungle, rice fields, lakes and ponds full of water lilies, villages and side roads of red earth regaled us all the way to Vientiane where we met again with the mighty Mekong which we were to follow all the way down to the border with Cambodia.
I had read in other peoples’ blogs that in Laos it was possible to sleep in Buddhist temples, we didn’t know how that would work out with us being women. In Laos it is considered an offence for women to touch a monk, his robes, or to hand anything to a monk directly. In many instances a male friend or family member will be used as an intermediary or lacking that a plate or some other item will be used and then placed on the ground for the monk to use. This posed a problem for us, how would we ask for permission to stay? We developed a drill – before going into the temple compound we would put on long sleeves, Karen would get out her phrase book, open it in the correct page and leave the book on the floor but this didn’t seem to be very effective so in the end we went for the sign language approach whilst at the same time showing a photo of our tents which worked much better. In this way we spent some wonderful nights in the temples.
In one of those nights we arrived at a temple by the Mekong where the initial answer to our request to stay was a negative. It was quite late by now and it was getting dark. In Laos the change between light and dark is sudden, night falls upon you in an instant and we knew we would find it difficult to find a place in daylight so we insisted and finally someone agreed that we could stay. We chose what we thought was a discreet spot to pitch our tents at the back of the temple trying to keep away from what we fondly called the ‘breakfast club’-every day soon after 6am villagers came to the temple to offer food to the monks. From our tents we used to hear them praying and then sharing the food and respectfully keeping out of the way.
No sooner we had finished setting out tents when a small man with a checked shirt arrived in a motorcycle, from his air of authority we deduced that he must be the village chief. In no uncertain terms he told us to move our tents, carefully chose the new location, watched us set up and advised us to lock up bikes and finally left. The light in the Mekong was wonderful and we moved closer to the river to cook our evening meal. Two soldiers, with guns over their shoulders came over. By signs we understood that they didn’t want us there, they kept on pointing at the river and Thailand just across it. One of them, the officious looking one, asked us where we were going (we were going to Savannakhet) and very agitated he got on the phone. He shouting ‘falang, falang Savannakhet!!’ down the phone (falang is the term used for foreigner and we had heard it thousands of times on the road) We knew he was talking about us but had no idea what he was saying. He asked to see our passports and went back on the phone, so much gesticulating and agitation, more ‘falang, falang Savannakhet!!’ and more pointing at the river and Thailand. We had no idea what he was saying so our minds started to fill in the gaps: “that night there was going to be a raid on illegal emigrants coming over from Thailand and we were just in the path of all the activity” or was it that they thought we were trying to cross over to Thailand illegally?
We moved back from the river and went back to our dinner when villagers started to arrive and encircled us watching our every move and pointing at the ingredients of our meal. They got very excited when they saw the garlic and the ginger – ‘falangs use the same ingredients as us!!’ we imagined they saying. And then they paid great attention at the way we were eating.
The evening had been totally surreal: village chief, soldiers, Thailand, illegal emigrants, falang, falang Savannakhet, dozens of villagers watching us cook and eat. We felt part of a monty phython sketch and the evening wasn’t over yet!
The women proudly showed us some beautiful flower displays that they had brought with them and urged us to go with them to the river. Just then the monks went in procession to the spot where the soldiers were supposed to be guarding the border and started chanting. The dozens of villagers gathered around us went to the Monks, lit the candles in their flower arrangements bringing them to live and in an orderly way went down the path to the river, deposited them in the water and watch them to float downstream. Some of them pointed at the moon, at that point the penny dropped and we understood that we were in the middle of the November Full Moon festival!! Teenagers arrived in their scooters with offerings to the river; thousands of moths flew around the search light illuminating the path to the water; Karen had the children in stitches…It was a happy, happy night and when they all left and the temple became silent, we were left with a warm happy feeling and the November full moon.
When we got to Savannakhet there was a surprise in waiting – Dietrich, the Swiss cyclist with whom I crossed the border to China from Kyrgyzstan was there. In China he had told me how much he loved the Mekong but I had never expected we would have meet again. It was wonderful to see him and be reminded of his dry humour. Also, it was fascinating to see how the monks in the temples were more approachable when we were with a man.
On and off we cycled together all the way to Si Phan Don, also know as 4000 islands, an island archipelago in the border with Cambodia. We rented a little hut in Don Det with hammocks outside and rested there for a few days. The perfect ending to our Laos adventure.
When we got to Savannakhet there was a surprise in waiting – Once again I met Dietrich, the Swiss cyclist with whom I crossed the border to China from Kyrgyzstan. He had told me how much he loved the Mekong but I had never expected we would have meet again. It was fascinating to see how the monks in the temples were more approachable when we were with a man. On and off we cycled together all the way to Si Phan Don, also know as 4000 islands, an island archipelago in the border with Cambodia. We rented a little hut in Don Det with hammocks outside and rested there for a few days. The perfect ending to our Laos adventure.