We were somewhere over the Niassa province of Northern Mozambique when the tears welled up in my eyes. The map on the inflight computer screen started to bring up names that triggered memories: Harare, Blantyre, Nampula, Lake Malawi. I knew that directly below me in the darkness, mostly between those place names, was an Africa that most of my fellow passengers had never really seen.
There were villages down there with people who would probably never get any closer to a plane than the 10,000 metres that separated us. I then remembered places all across the continent where I’d lain in my tent, or sweated along a dirt-track and heard the distant roar of an aircraft flying high above me, thinking at the time that one day I would be up there, flying back to a different World.
And so here I was, being brought a fourth bottle of wine on my request and asked by the air hostess if I was OK? When I explained I’d spent over 2.5 years cycling through Africa she later returned with a polaroid camera, snapped a shot and handed me a picture inside an Air Emirates photo-sleeve. “Congrats on finishing your amazing adventure. From Jill and all the cabin crew”. I had been given a row of seats to myself so looked round rather embarrasingly to see who was watching me. Most of the passengers were either asleep or had their eyes focused on their inflight screen.
It was the first time I’d been on a plane since January 2009, and unsettling to be racing back over places I’d spent weeks cycling between. Nothing was said of my boxed bike weighing in at 35kg when I checked it in (most of my clothes and gear were stuffed inside as well) and I just hoped it would make it from Dubai onto London Gatwick in one piece.
At Dubai the temperature stepping off the plane at 5.30am was 35C, and the enormous transfer terminal seemed more like a shopping mall as I lugged my handlebar bag and an overloaded pannier past faces from all over the World.
Whilst I had a row of seats to myself flying between Cape Town and Dubai, the seven-hour stretch to London had me sandwiched between a young Pakistani girl and her 1-month year old baby, and an English/Korean couple with their 8-month year old threatening to vomit all over my lap.
I saw the rain lashing against the windows of the plane before it hit terra firma. “We’ve had our worst summer on record” remarked my Mum as we drove back through Surrey on the way to Dorset. “Awful for the bees, and the grass desperately needs cutting. The Cerne river flooded last Saturday. And they’re predicting more rain!”
England does indeed appear to be in the midst of a terrible summer, and in typical English fashion almost every conversation I’ve had soon involves talking about the weather.
I’m back in the tiny English village I pedalled out of almost 3 years ago. Not much changes in a place like this. The calendar in the room I slept in here before still has August 2009 showing, and those books and CDs, which make up the bulk of my possesions, have collected a bit more dust. It’s almost as if time stood still whilst I was away. Someone in the village could at least have managed to get the pub open!
People ask what it’s like being back. I think I’m meant to be undergoing some kind of reverse culture-shock. Maybe the realisation that nothing has really changed is part of that shock. Everyone and everything is just 3 years older. Life simply goes on, which down in a village in Dorset mostly means very slowly.
To be honest my head is in a little of a muddle, which given how long I’ve been away, where I went and where I am now, is understandable. I sit, but more often stand up to watch the Tour De France, which only makes me more resltess to get out on the bike. I unboxed and reassembled it on the first day I got back, then bought new brakes and cables (those on there were rusted and needed changing) and was overjoyed to discover an un-used Schwalbe XR tyre covered in cobwebs in the garage (only cycle tourers would appreciate my delight at such a discovery). The next day I got wet cycling into Dorchester to watch the Olympic torch come through. “I wonder why we bother”, said another cyclist as I sped by.
My mind is more concerned with where I’m going to base myself now that I’m back. You see I was here before, 4 years ago and on the other side of thirty, with my mind equally unsettled as I bought maps of Africa and planned another journey. I spent the best part of a year living at my Mum’s whilst I worked part-time at organic farms, taught English to foreign language students in nearby Bournemouth, spoke to schools about my Long Ride Home, and researched and prepared for the Big Africa Cycle. I never had the mental discipline to sit down and write a book.
This time around I’m more committed, but unsure as to where. I could fly back to Cape Town in a few months time when their summer starts, but life is almost as expensive there as it is here. Tanzania, and more specifically Zanzibar, held so much appeal as a place to return to, but I don’t know if that appeal was part of the connection to the journey and the knowledge that I was passing through to somewhere else. London, where I’ve never really lived, would connect me with my age-group and all the possibilities of networking to speak and publisise what I’ve done, but an expensive and busy place to be, unless I can organise frequent talks. And then there is here in Dorset, which peaceful as it is, with a friendly local Squash club that kept me physically and socially active in the months leading up to the departure last time, has a bit too much of the deja vu and back-to-where-I-started feel to it all. I really feel the need for my own space. Any suggestions/offers from readers for a base/retreat to write would be most welcome.
Before I go and enjoy some of the evening sun, it’s worth mentioning that I will be giving a talk next Saturday evening in the village of Cerne Abbas (28th July at 7pm). Having spoken there before I left in 2008 and 2009, and had an Against Malaria Foundation collection box placed in the local shop during the time I was in Africa, I thought the residents of this village might appreciate hearing some of my tales. If you happen to be close by, or feel like journeying down, please contact me.Tickets cost £5.
On a broader note. I’m trying to organise more talks, whether they be in schools, corporate environments, or clubs. If you are reading this and can put me in contact with anyone, or would like to hear me speak, please do get in contact.