Did Luxor exist? Did we pass by there in a swirl of wheels and spokes and dust? The road erases the past as wind sweeping over messages scratched in the desert sand. It hardly allows for a future. It is a perennial now, this foot on this pedal on this segment of tarmac. The Pharaohs are carved like Keat’s Grecian urn into a granite yet plastic eternity, their existence a forever inverse of Nirvana, a ceaseless striving reborn again and again, as alive today as 3000 years ago. Curiously, we on our bicycles are more ephemeral, insubstantial, ghosts of a sort spinning to create the worlds into which we can be born. This sensation is intensified by disconnection from the links that have become the norms of our life: at once loss and release. And thus, too, the silence of the past while.
I write this from Dongola, a four-day cycle ride from Khartoum. It is our sixth day in Sudan, a country that one hardly thinks of as a place to visit; and for me it conjured up vague, long lost memories of Hebrew school and Biblical references to the magical kingdom of Kush. Magical indeed but in a wholly other way.
It has been a hard coming, hard in the ways that sculpt marble; we are chiseled by the demands of the road, the long days in the saddle, often 140-150 kms a day, setting up camp each night, rising at 4am to decamp and again hit the road. We live in eternal return cocooned within the constant stream of the unknown, we who in this land have become the Other, yet anchored still in our privilege, so caught in what we are, what we were, how we are seen and, mysterious, fearful in the way of the sublime, of what we are becoming.
I’ve ridden through sandstorms feeling like Lawrence of Arabia on a bicycle, faced fierce headwinds, cycled alongside the mighty Nile past scenes that seem to have been frozen from time immemorial—fellahin in cotton jellabiyah working small plots of land, said a thousand and one Salaam Aleikums and exchanged gestures and words with alert, curious and open Egyptians and Sudanese. And I have been so impregnated with the fine talc like desert sand that I am as a snowman but of yellow dust. The sand, the sand, the sand. It is everywhere, it is in everything.
Scenes rise like morning mist. Abdullah, the 13-year old in yellow t-shirt and a wide, wise face. As his friends, one sitting on a white donkey, which he would wack from time to time with a cudgel, clamoured, “money, money”, he looked me in the eye and said, “no money”. The importuning shouts stopped instantly. So we talked, he in his halting but serviceable English, me in quiet, simple words and gestures. His school, the Madrassah, what he studied, family. Then a silence between us, companionable, equals who had crossed a divide and shared in a communion.
Women and children gathering, squatting on the outskirts of our desert campsites as if taking their first class seats at the circus, for that is what we are, the circus come to remote villages. They watch and laugh and cry out. Vikas, one of our riders, brings out a frisbee. The children are delighted chasing the orange disc in sky and dust.
Large, scarred swathes of desert, open-pit gold mines, and young men sitting on rocks by the side of the road waiting for a ride to take them to or from their shifts at mine.
Ibrahim who approaches me in the Dongola market with a fine English. He is delighted that I am Canadian. He was a seaman for 20 years, traveled the world, and now settled as a man of substance with a farm, a hotel, a shop. He pulls out his cell phone and displays a video message from his 8-year old granddaughter, a vivacious gap-toothed young girl with a surprising British accent telling the world with great pride of her Sudanese family.. Ibrahim’s daughter had moved to England and now lives in California.
Awad, the receptionist at our hotel who comes from a village about 30 kilometers from Dongola, where they grow chick peas, wheat, onions and raise sheep. He is a handsome young man of about 30. He tells me he is too poor to marry. Then he asks, why is it we hardly use any sugar in our coffee or tea; is it because sugar will cause cancer?
Dongola itself in a constant buzz of movement of donkey carts, tuktuks (motorized rickshaws), men in long white caftans and white turbans and skull caps, the women wrapped in a splendid rainbow array of toobs (sari-like wrap around cloths that serve as head scarves and body cover; we have seen very few women in full burka). We gobble down hot felafel, straight out of the boiling oil, with a rich pita-like bread from street stalls. In the evening we wait for evening prayers to finish and then the stalls open with rapid efficiency. People line up for rotisserie chicken. I go for a bean stew, which is hauled out in an enormous vat from a back room, where it has been slow cooking possibly all day.
As much as we are greeted with enthusiasm and questions, others walk by us with averted eyes as if to avoid contamination by the infidel. It is a reminder to be humble, observe, watch, learn, to set aside all that we have been and to open ourselves to modes of thought and speech that lie beyond our present ken.
Soon it is time for our rider’s meeting and tomorrow’s itinerary. We push on, south towards Khartoum.