Posts Tagged ‘people’

Video highlights from six years biking around the world

Apologies if you’d been expecting my monthly update and got radio-silence… It was the first time I’ve missed a blog post in the last seven years. My excuse is that I’ve been embroiled in all manner of projects since coming back and the blog had to take a back seat. But I will continue to post here.

Footfall

As I’m winding up this journey I’m getting a touch nostalgic so I thought I’d revisit some experiences from the road. I’m often asked what was the most frightening or dangerous moment during your trip. Probably, it was this one from Peru…

Footfall?

I feel muscles go taut, my whole body as tensioned and thinly tremulous as a tightrope walker inside my sleeping bag. It’s a familiar paralysis. I’m rough camping tonight, and offbeat sounds bring an anxiety that feels primal, that lives in my guts, and even if the sabre tooth tiger is now a policeman, a wandering drunk, or a curious farmer, it can’t be reasoned with, it won’t be allayed.

I stay still, dimly breathing, opening my ears and letting the sounds rush in. I hear the prickle of rain blown into my tent, and the breaths of wind, drawing, billowing the fabric. I think again about how safe spaces mutate into ominous ones when you’re sealed away, blind and sensitive only to its murmurings. I can’t hear footsteps now. Perhaps I never did. A dream maybe, or the fidgeting of trees: the innocent pretence of boughs knocking against one another in the night.

The blue glow of my watch says 3 am. I try to remember where I am. My brain zooms in like I’m moving a cursor on googlemaps : South America, Peru, somewhere in La Sierra. I’m far from a town. That’s right, it was raining. There was a house, silhouetted against a violet sky: aloof, concrete, long-shadowed and as empty as I’d hoped when I peered in through the paneless window. The roof, I saw, jutted out giving me three feet of shelter for my tent and a chance to escape the worst of the rain.

Rough camping is always haunted by stray sounds and grumbling portents, and camping in wild, unpeopled places can feel less adventurous than nights in the edgeland, in the half-light and jumbled shrubs of droning roadsides where car headlights tear strips into the night and streetlights twinkle like stars.

During these nightly detours there’s a feeling of stalking society. I’m awake to the clank and grumble of industry, the pylons that hiss like vipers, the harangue of farm dogs that have fixed my scent. It’s thrillingly outsiderish: the thief at the window. Childishly fun like a game of hide and seek. I worked out that over the last six years I’ve spent around 750 nights seeking out two metres square to make my own campsite. Like twilight, most nights have melted away and escaped from memory, though a few I recall now as glorious victories: the Jordanian cliff top, the Californian sea cave, the middle of a French roundabout, a derelict Ottoman castle. Others I remember as stonking defeats, and these I’ve catalogued under labels which invoke timeworn horror movies – The Night of the Fire Ants, The dawn of the Scorpion under my thermorest, and Midnight of the Flood. And when it doesn’t go wrong, when the footfall is not the axe murdering sociopath you know it must be, you experience a sense of escape that washes away all of that gut-buried fear and seems to make the whole process ecstatically worth it.

Crunch crunch

Shit

Crunch

I’ve been here before too, the moment when all doubt evaporates. The feet – I’m sure now – are pacing out a careful circle. I’m being considered. I’m being surveyed. Someone, perhaps, is coming to a decision about me. The feet turn backwards and move to the other side of my tent, near the door.

Nothing for it now, I’m busted. The footsteps are too close, too precise, for me to have escaped notice. I revive myself in a jolt and sit up, unzip my tent and peer into the shadowy shape of a man whose face I can’t see well until he kneels down and I glimpse his eyes and stop caring about what he looks like because I’m staring at his right hand and the gun clutched within it that rises up and becomes aimed at my head.

The gun is black. It gleams metallically. It looks new. It looks illusory and weird. I see the black hole of the barrel. Something inside me falls and stays falling. I’m not breathing.

Talk

I’m babbling. Spanish comes in a messy flood, words clambering over themselves and pronunciation gone to shit.

‘I’m a tourist, it was raining, I needed somewhere away from the rain. What’s your name? I’m Stephen. What do you want? Please, you don’t need the gun’

‘Fuera’ – Get out. Not angry, not calm. Just instructive. I move. It happens in a flurry, I’ve twisted out from my sleeping bag, my shorts are on, I’m scrabbling to leave my tent. I’m saying ‘fuck’ a lot. And now I’m standing in front of a man with a revolver pointed at my guts. I can see his face now, wet with rain and streaked with mud. His eyes are wide, penetrating, moonlit. I notice that I’m shaking. I notice that he’s shaking too. His gun-hand wavers.

I’m reassured then in a wave. He’s scared. Scared enough to do something rash? I feel myself spiraling again. He angles the gun up a little, I judge the trajectory to meet my chest. My lungs, my heart, my aorta, my trachea, my spinal cord.

‘Get into my house’. There’s a tremble in that voice too.

OK, it’s his house. Think, think. But I’m numb, my mind’s snagged, insensate like my skin, unaffected by the cold and slicking rain.

Who is this? The infamous Ladrones perhaps, one of the bandits I’ve been warned of. There’s a flash of a conversation I had with a biker three weeks ago who’d been shot at, he’d showed me where a bullet had grazed his bicycle frame, it had sounded so fantastical I’d chosen not to believe him. Or maybe he’s one of the Rondas Campesinas, the local vigilantes who patrol rural Peru and fill in for the police, that would be better.

I walk towards the front door of the house, too fast, and he follows shortly behind me, the timbre of the footfall somehow worse than before. I feel the tendons in my neck in tension as I listen for a shot and wait for my back to explode, and blood to soak the front of my chest, movie-style. No shot comes by the time I reach the wooden door which creaks open under my shove.

‘Sit down. Who are you?’

A light comes on. I sit on a wooden chair by a table. I see a small stove in the corner that I must have missed when I peered in the window, but there’s little else to suggest this is anyone’s home.

‘What do you want?’ he says

My mind races to explain the rapidity of his questions, the flustered zip of his eyes, that catch in his voice. But something strange is happening: his fear has stopped precipitating more of my own. I start to wonder if it holds some key to getting out of this.

‘I’m just a tourist, from England. I’m travelling by bicycle. It was raining. I needed somewhere to camp’

He eyes fall away from me, to the side, he scrunches up his dirty face, he seems to be thinking. And with a small backwards lean, the gun falls down to his side.

‘It’s cold tonight’

‘Si señor’

‘Would you like some soup?’

Soup. Right. That would be wonderful. It wasn’t high on my list, but I’ll take it. I nod.

I’m still vigorously nodding as he moves to the stove and fiddles, his back to me. The gun is on the counter now: it’s unheld, it’s beyond an intrepid lunge away, I notice. He turns back to me.

‘Some men came to my home last month. They had guns. They took everything’ he says, explaining my impression that the place was derelict.

‘I bought this for protection. I thought you were one of them’

He smiles for the first time, and I realise I’m doing the same, but in a wildly exaggerated way.

‘Why are you back so late?’ I ask

‘Oro’ he says. Gold.

Of course, the muddy face, and all those holes I’d seen cut into the hillsides. This opportunistic mining is illegal, but local men ignore the rules and make nocturnal forays. Some have died when their holes cave in. They make pennies. The multinationals take it away in trucks.

‘Look what I found’ he walks over to me, digs into his pocket and brings out a wad of tissue paper. Opening it up two nuggets of gold glint in the yellowy dance of the electric light.

‘Wow. How much will you sell them for?’

‘112 soles per gram’; he says with pride. Thirty quid. Probably it’s nothing compared to their worth.

We talk, Vancho and I. He tells me about his family, a wife and three children, a few hundred kilometres away in a poor industrial town on the coast, high in crime and transient, dislocated people. He tells me of how he’s struggling to look after them.

Finally he says ‘Well if you need anything, you can knock. Buenas noches, Señor.’

‘Muchas gracias’ It’s for the soup, for the not killing me, but mostly for not toying with my impression that the world is not the chilling, calculated one of the TV news.

I return to my tent, the rain has stopped and a few stars are out. I fall asleep slowly next to Vancho’s home, listening again to the night. There’s a lulling, reassuring whisper to the wind, and in a few hours the sun will rise.

 
 
Two more blog posts to come: the next on Europe, the last one on thoughts of coming home.A new blog will rise from the ashes from this one.
 
I’ve been very lucky to receive regular donations from the
public over the last three years of this trip since I ran out of money, first through
a crowdfunding campaign and then through the ‘donate/ buy me some noodles’
button on this website. Along with income from travel writing and giving presentations, this has been essential for me to continue. I’m seriously
running on empty in the final weeks of my trip, so if you’ve enjoyed this blog
and would like to make a small contribution so
that I can sneak into a café and buy myself a coffee, or sleep in a hostel to
escape the snow, I would be immensely grateful. Here’s the link…
 

The human cost of conflict, northern Afghanistan

Home is an exciting, alarming, and chilly two months away. The homecoming is set, come down if you’re free: Friday 19th February at lunch time. Warning – there may be any or all of the following: gratuitous fist pumping, tears, mute confusion, complete psychological breakdown. Or I might just ponder the amassed friends and family from the perspective of Westminster Bridge and do an about-turn. I’ve never been to Chad.

I’m in Belgrade now and delighted to be back in Europe again – though there is much to lament about leaving Asia, I’m relishing the quiet roads and the voluptuous curves motorists make around me. It is a strange, unfamiliar world, without the constant threat of death.

I’m not publishing my usual update because this month has involved very little cycling – I’ve been busy instead visiting projects associated with the health of marginalised people in the Caucasus. I usually don’t blog about these topics – the aim is to write a book with the running theme of ‘edges’ which will combine a travelogue (crossing Asia by bicycle) with reporting on marginalised people and their helpers that I met along the way – remote, physically marginalized communities, and the figurative edges of the human world too, those isolated for social, economic or cultural reasons.

 

So far I have visited fourteen projects around the subject of marginalised people in Asia – the focus has ranged from patients with communicable disease (TB, HIV, Hepatitis), deforming disease such as leprosy, mental illness, children with disability, economic migrants, the homeless, sex workers, victims of domestic violence, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, refugees, nomadic tribes, drug users, remote communities, slum dwellers, ex-prisoners and members of the LGBT community.

With home virtually around the corner, my thoughts have veered to plans for The New Life. In the short term I will be starting a new blog with practical advice and articles relevant to cycle touring, and I will be rejoining my profession (part-time). I’ll also get cracking on that book, though realistically it’s about three years from publication.

 

The concept of Slow Journalism is an interesting one, though perhaps just a rebranding of what’s been performed for decades, and the bicycle with its unprotected view proved a great way to immerse myself in the landscape and context of people’s lives. “You can’t write about people unless you know what’s on their mantlepiece.” Journalist and mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace said recently on Radio Four. Over the last six years I’ve slept in the homes of people in more than fifty countries, as well as countless churches, mosques, hospitals, schools, police stations and army barracks. I have shared the fusty air and mosquitoes of a barn with a snortsome, cheesed-off buffalo. Along the way I didn’t see many mantelpieces, but I do see Marjorie’s point.

 

This is a piece from Afghanistan

The human cost of conflict, northern Afghanistan

 

The frail, garbled song of a city waking up drifts through my hotel window. As the emerging sun restores colour to the domes of the Blue Mosque in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-sharif, a man splays a piece of cardboard onto the pavement below, a makeshift mat, and begins to pray. Next to him a tough gang of street kids fight over the fruits of begging, and a scattering of women wander about on early errands, most draped in blue burqas; rippled and shaped by the desert wind.

It’s the trucks though which hold my gaze, as they drag their long shadows up and down the square of road that encloses the Blue Mosque. Gangs of men sit in the open-topped backs, slung with silvery-worn assault rifles, legs draped casually over the side, their shemaghs wrapped around their heads and faces, leaving just a slit for the eyes. One of these wraith-like men per car attends to a mounted machine gun that makes my heart race. Some may be police, and some paid militias loyal to the provincial governor, at least I hope so. When the Taliban attack, they have done so in a similar disguise.

Mazar-e-sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, has long been considered a place of relative safety, attested by 14 years of calm following the driving out of the Taliban by the Northern Alliance in 2001, but this summer two attacks rocked such confidences, and darkened headlines. There was the murder of nine workers from a Czech NGO in their beds on the outskirts of the city, and the attack in April on the Secretary General’s office in daylight leaving scores dead, though the numbers are disputed. Witness accounts of fatalities are often at odds with numbers revealed on Afghan news, the government keen to promote a picture of stability in a country struggling to prevent Taliban inroads in the North, now that international military support has largely pulled out.

The population of Mazar-e-sharif is on the up as those affected by the spreading violence are drawn from villages to these safer streets controlled by a famously wealthy, ethnically-Tajik governor, Atta Muhammad Nur, known as ‘the teacher’, a former commander in the Mujahidin, a man skilled in the art of war. Though he has the monopoly on violence, he is widely respected for keeping order, and the Taliban at bay.

Sitting in an eating house scoffing the city’s famous ice cream, fluffy-moustached students practice their English with me; assuming that I’m a soldier. I exchange facebook pages with one who goes on a liking frenzy of my posts on his smartphone. Above us a TV set hums and throws out images from battlegrounds in some distant or perhaps not-so-faraway province.

I seek out the regional hospital, part funded by Germany, Sweden and Japan, which hides behind a tumult of fruit vendors. There is the usual collection of labs and wards, with the addition of a centre for the treatment of opium addicts, signal of yet another problem lumbering beneath Afghanistan’s turbid surface. Burqa-clad women sit in clumps on the steps by the entrance, be-turbaned men stand apart by the doors. Mazar-e-sharif homes a great variety of peoples, and the city’s roots are inscribed in the multiplicity of hats, skin tones and faces, in the emerald and café-au-lait and blackish eyes.

Dr Rallimullah is a bushy-browed kind-eyed orthopaedic surgeon, Indian and Afghan-trained, who I meet in one of the hospital’s offices.

‘Medical schools here can be a joke’ he says, mirthlessly. ‘Doctors come out with virtually no clinical experience, under-skilled, trained inadequately in one specialty by teachers of another. The difference between a teacher and a student is one night’s reading, I’m serious! Information is passed on like water is passed between hands, and after enough hands, there’s no water left.’

Dr Rallimullah believes the healthcare system is not much better than it was 50 years ago, when he boasts of how specialists indulged in open heart and even brain surgery. These days, he says, a so-called Chest Surgeon is someone who can insert a chest tube, which most junior doctors can manage in the West. In today’s Afghanistan, the doctors themselves are often the blood donors.

Dr Rullimullah has been invited for training in the UK, in Newcastle and Belfast, but even with references, his medical license and referral letters in abundance, a UK visa is far from a given when you hold an Afghan passport, and he seems reticent about discussing his chances. Go online here, I’m told, and the Afghan IP address will trigger a barrage of advertisements from the Australian government instructing Afghans not to make the journey, with the phrase ‘No Way. Do not make Australia home’. Who then, I wonder, will train the next generation of doctors if in-country education is scant and Afghans are ordered against venturing abroad to learn?

I push open a door stickered with a no guns sign and join the swinging tail of a ward round which sweeps volubly through the orthopaedic department. On any given day around 70% of the patients here are victims of road traffic accidents, but the peril of the region’s hectic highways is old news. It’s the 20% here by actions of an insurgent Taliban which is the fraction growing the fastest. But it’s not just targeted attacks I’m told: violence is infectious. Family feuds can be settled using guns, and Dr Rallimullah recounts stories of wedding party massacres, insisting this was never the case before, even five years ago.

We stop by the bed of an 11 year old boy. As we crowd round his face distorts into a mask of unchildlike fear; his mother, a small lady in a white veil, reaches for his hand. I sense some deep psychological trauma, and wait to hear a story I’m already guessing at.

Marjan had been at the bazaar in the northern town of Maimana with his mother to buy new sandals when a woman in a burqa detonated a bomb in a pressure cooker. The blast wave threw him into a nearby canal, where he was found with a head injury and broken femur. He was rushed to a private clinic with no expert orthopedic surgeon, but where external fixators were poorly applied in order to adjoin the ends of fractured bone. Dr Rallimullah holds up an x-ray film for me to examine ‘totally unnecessary’ he grumbles, pointing to the misaligned pins. When the bones failed to unite he was taken by his mother to a mullah who proclaimed the boy to be cursed, and responsible for his own pain and disability. Months later Marjan arrived in Mazar-e-sharif, via the Red Crescent, where he awaits further surgery and psychiatric evaluation. At night he wakes, screaming and tearing at his bedclothes.

I offer his mother a seat, but she refuses, opting instead to crouch on her hams on the floor, gazing up at me past the vacant seat and speaking through a white veil drawn half over her face. Before the bomb blast, she says, her husband had become addicted to opium and left her to look after their six children alone. Now, after her son’s injury, her other children go to school for only half the time, the other half they are forced to work, stitching together clothes to raise two dollars a day for food. I see then the ripple effect of violence, of how in time, deprived of education, these ripples may create ripples of their own.

But for now, her main concern is her son. ‘He’s not normal’ she tells me, in hushed tones, sending her words to the hospital floor. ‘He screams and talks to himself. I pray his leg will heal, but I worry most about his mind.’

On the way out Dr Rallimullah turns to a female doctor in the corridor: ‘Be orange!’ he says to her in passing, and she smiles back. I ask him why. ‘Last week two of our specialists argued about whose responsibility a patient should be.’ He says. I nod, thinking of how often a similar debate plays out in hospitals across the UK. He goes on: ‘I said to them: it is the patient that matters, do not let the patient get stuck in the middle of your arguments. If one of us is white and the other is red, then we must both become orange’ adding wistfully ‘I hope for this attitude too, for the people of Afghanistan’.