The stories from good travels never really end. There is always a new one, a new gloss on an old one, or simply a retelling to someone who has never heard it before. Sometimes it’s a connected event that triggers a memory. Other times its a photo, a scrawl left on the pages of a journal by an earlier self in the hopes that a later one would come across those pages and be able to remember not simply the facts of an event, but to feel again what it was like to be that person, to be there, then.
Who I am when I travel and who I am in the quiet times between journeys have a relationship like this. One writes memories, the other tell stories. One leaves messages and the other scours the pages of journals for them. It’s the thread of a game that links the strange and exotic locations to whoever I happen to feel I am on a given day afterwards. I am grateful, from this past adventure, for the tens of thousands of words that I have left myself. The photographs. Even the occasional video clip. When I feel creative, or that I need to explore, I need only open one of my journals and flip through a few pictures before I am all too easily stepping back to days as an overland explorer. Taken from my notes on Christmas day in Atbara, Sudan, this is one such memory.
It’s an ironic memory, given that I hadn’t intended to be in Atbara at all. When I had left Khartoum that morning, it had been to bus north to the Begrawiya pyramids, where I would stay at a nearby town or the pyramids themselves before moving on the next day at my own pace. As it happened, the pyramids were in the middle of the desert, with absolutely nothing nearby. The bus didn’t let me off there, instead taking me north to the town of Atbara. In retrospect, I was luckier than I could possibly have appreciated at the time not to have had the bus leave me where I wanted. It did mean though, that I arrived in Atbara in a foul mood – my best laid plans wholly disrupted and me in a town I knew absolutely nothing about. To further worsen my grumpy mood, nobody spoke any English, forcing me to make the most use of my embarrassingly basic Arabic to try and get by. I felt like a petulant three year old in the hot dust of Atbara that afternoon.
So it came to pass that somewhere past lunchtime on Christmas, I found myself without a place to stay, in a town I didn’t know, where nobody spoke English and Christmas didn’t exist.
A petulant child for whom the final straw came when the only ‘hotel’ I was able to find meant having to deal with a front desk clerk who trebled the list price of my room, giving me the a sharky “what are you going to do about it?” grin. As I recall, I told him to put his overpriced room in a place that no furniture, much less an entire suite, should ever be put. It’s unlikely that he understood what I said, but I am absolutely certain that he correctly read the inflection of it before I stormed back out into the road. So it came to pass that somewhere past lunchtime on Christmas, I found myself without a place to stay, in a town I didn’t know, where nobody spoke English and Christmas didn’t exist. In a word, I felt quite alone.
For some reason, when I travel, these are usually the points at which dumb luck raises her dumb head and helps me out. This time, fortunately, held true to that pattern. After sitting on the side of the road for however long it took me to stop being angry at the universe for messing me around and realise that being angry at the universe would be about as useful as being angry at the stuffed pig in my backpack, only less directly satisfying, I looked around a bit. It didn’t take long, once my inner three year old had departed, to realise that finding accommodation would not be nearly as difficult a challenge as I had imagined. I was, as it turned out, sulking right in front of a hotel. Whose rates were decent, and whose front desk contained a man who looked more wholesome teenager than greasy shark. And so I found a bed. Although still in a town I had not expected to be, with no idea of how to get a bus onward or how long I would be there, the presence of a bed and a room I could lock and lie down in made such thoughts an unnecessary luxury, to be dealt with later.
Later, as it turned out, came after a nap. There are few situations that cannot be put into their appropriate perspective after a decent nap. This one was no exception. A short exploration of the neighbouring blocks and some more conversations in ciminally-bad Arabic later, I had learned that I would have all of the next day in Atbara, as the bus to the only onward destination, a town called Abu Hamed, would only be leaving the day after. With the evening starting to settle in, I stocked up on christmas goodies and spend the evening squirreled in my room, celebrating with the stuffed pig and imagining what family and friends would be doing for Christmas in their respective homes.
Boxing Day in the town with no Boxing Day
There was a market on in Atbara that day, which meant that the streets were transformed. Turkish coffee pots, farming implements, every kind and colour of schwarma, bean fuul and vegetable. Somehow, someone was even selling watermelons. Another had a stall full of thick anoraks and jerseys, which struck me as a little odd, given that we were in the middle of the desert. It would only be a few days later that I would appreciate how cold the nights in the desert can be. Anoraks are a lot smarter to bring along to the desert than you might immediately have thought. I must have wandered around those stalls for a good three or four hours, exploring block after block of clothes shops, butcher shops, tea shops and shisha shops amidst a traffic of tuk tuks, donkeys and hundreds of men in their distinctive white gowns. I had forgotten completely that this was not somewhere I wanted to be, flowing with the whirl of morning shopping and the smell of beans and goat on the air.
Looking around for a landmark to get back to my hotel later, I found none that I recognised. Block after under-construction block stared blankly back at me as I walked up and down Atbara, to the train station and back, trying to find anything that looked familiar. I remembered that there was a donkey tethered to a pole only one street away from my hotel. Then I realised that this was a terrible landmark to have remembered, as donkey after tethered donkey would look at me patronisingly from each street corner. I was unexpectedly lost again, though this time not nearly as petulant about it. I had nowhere to be and much of the day left before I needed to worry about being anywhere – such as in my bed. So I stopped rushing and started exploring again. Atbara is only so big, having only so many blocks that I could wander through before I would find my hotel again.
So it was that I ended up walking a good part of the town flat. I found a dozen more donkeys, mostly tethered, a canteen that made the first really good bean fuul I had found in my trip so far (and never managed to again) and even a church. It was a mud-brick building hidden away near the railway tracks, with crucifixes on its roof and walls. A small flyer pinned to the front gate appeared to have been recently written, possibly having something to do with Christmas, but I couldn’t read the Arabic since my reading ability only extended as far as the words for ‘Coke’ and ‘Hotel’. I am reasonably sure that neither word appeared in the flyer. The church did appear to be closed though and remained so for the rest of the day, despite me returning to check on it at least a half-dozen times, hoping to find the gate unlocked. I’m not a terribly religious sort, but I am a firm believer in pursuing mysteries. That church was such a thing.
I ultimately found my hotel again. A tethered donkey, looking much like any other of the dozen I had passed (or had I passed this one a dozen times?) was one street down. He looked at me patronisingly. I looked at him with joy, then ascended the steps to the hotel and sat on the roof and watched the sun set across the town. Tomorrow would be another bus onward to Abu Hamed, then Wadi Halfa and the crossing to Egypt. I realised at last that whether I originally wanted to be in this place or not, I would quite possibly never find myself back here again in my lifetime and would do well to appreciate it. It’s a little game that I play in my head every time I move onward. I try to imagine my future, the places I might still see, and wonder whether I might ever stand back in this same place again. Older, wiser, certainly more interesting, changed in every respect except that my feet would be planted squarely where the me I am now is standing. There is never an answer, since I have never ended up anywhere I expected even as little as year ago. But the exercise is tantalising. The point, I guess, as I said a quiet farewell to the Atbaran sun, is not to plan to know where I will be, but to imagine the fantastical loop of adventure, experience and change that could ever lead to me returning here. Then to remember that by standing here, contemplating it, I have already managed to do it at least once. Nothing gives me a greater excitement when I travel.
Not even encounering well-made bean fuul.