There's a scene near the start of Standing At The Crossroads that takes place on the back of a lorry. The details were culled from my experiences in Sudan in the 1980s, when this was the principal means of transport. For the most part, there were no roads, just ways across the desert or qoz (basically duneland stabilized by a seasonal mantle of grass) trail-blazed by goods trucks, some of which did phenomenal journeys - one driver claimed, somewhat improbably, it must be said, that his regular route was between Zaire and the Red Sea! The goods were the main thing, passengers secondary, piling on top and clinging on as the lorry lurched across the qoz.
Obviously, the comfort of the journey depended on the nature of the goods underneath us. Machine parts were murder, sacks of sorghum very heaven. One time I got a lorry stacked with furled mats, which I thought would be wonderful until I discovered that they functioned as a very effective trampoline. Worst, though, were the rare lorries that carried only people. With a light load and no risk of damaging valuable goods, some drivers would hurtle along at sixty miles an hour (i.e. about three times the speed that would have been advisable in such terrain) turning the journey into a version of the old seatbelt campaign ad', in which a raw egg was rattled in a metal box and the scrambled remains dribbled onto the ground.
Clinging to a bucking lorry for anything between 24 hours and five days was a bruising experience, and it wasn't made any easier by the fact that one fluctuated between freezing during the night and roasting during the day. Nonetheless, most of my fondest memories of Sudan are connected to bouncing about the country on the back of a lorry. It was a wonderful way to meet people, even if we always had the same conversation (Where-are-you-from? Where-are-you-going? What-are-you-doing? Why-are-you-here? Are-you-married? Do-you-believe-in-God?), a conversation at which I became so proficient that one of my interrogators chuffed the hell out of me by asking if I was Egyptian. It was also an object lesson in can-do improvisation and communal endeavour. Every lorry had it's lad-cum-mechanic who had to be able strip down and rebuild an engine in the middle of the qoz with nothing much more in the way of tools than a broken screwdriver and a bit of bent wire. And a chum of mine has an absolutely extraordinary story about a couple of truck loads of travellers building a dam, diverting a flood and constructing a causeway to get out of a bit of difficulty in the desert during the rainy season.
Above all though, there was a real sense of adventure to travelling like that, a feeling of being out and in and of the world that came as a glorious liberation to someone who had stubbornly resisted all that was offered to him throughout his adolescence, not knowing what he wanted of life, only what he didn't. Suddenly, I was there, this was it, the world was my playground, and I could go anywhere and do anything I damn well wanted. The words 'satori' and 'epiphany' are not too strong for the experience. Mike Asher, a teacher who took up camel trekking and became a professional explorer, writes with withering disdain of the lorries passing his encampment during the night, but for me those roaring, rearing, nose-diving, ditching, breaching trucks slewing across the desert were an education in living, a looking glass through which the world was transformed into a world full of wonders.
There were frustrations, of course. One would turn up at the souk, ask when the lorry was leaving, and invariably be told, "When the driver has finished eating." They never specified which meal. You would then hang about for four or five hours drinking endless glasses of chai, until all of a sudden, without any apparent signal, coalescing like a flock of birds swerving across the sky, everybody would be up and clambering onto the lorry, battling for a good place. We would then sit around for half-an-hour until the driver decided the load was badly balanced, whereupon we would disembark, the lorry would be unloaded, and it would all begin again. Lying in your sleeping bag in a roomy lorry trundling across the desert under a starry sky was pure delight, but being squeezed onto the back of a lorry carrying 85 people, as I once was, was a nightmare. It was so overloaded that they had to prop the suspension up with rocks to prevent the springs snagging the wheels. To my shame, I got in a strop about the crowding and climbed off the back of the moving vehicle, greatly distressing my travelling companions by nearly killing myself in the process.
It was testing in other ways, too. In my diaries, I often complain of solitude, but the ultimate trial of a relationship was being a couple in Sudan, particularly a couple intent on travelling together. Numerous relationships foundered in face of the stresses inherent in spending twenty-four hours a day with one another in trying circumstances. When I toured the Nuba Mountains, I was one of the last, if not the last khawaja to be allowed into the area that year because of an upsurge in fighting between the government troops and the SPLA. I was quite proud of myself, the Big Time Adventurer, so I was correspondingly peeved when I caught up with a rather insipid looking couple doing the same journey as me. They were three days further into their trip, so we tended to overlap at government rest houses for a night every couple of days, and every time we met, their relationship had deteriorated a little more. The climax came one evening when the guy looked at the girl and exclaimed, "Oh, my God, what's that horrible mark on your face?" She was badly flustered by that, fretfully patting her cheeks, lips and nose, clearly expecting to find some defining feature about to drop off. Understandable, really. Given the Where-There-Is-No-Doctor business, horrible marks unexpectedly appearing on your face could be a bit alarming. At which point, the boyfriend added: "Oh, it's all right. It was just your smile." I wouldn't mind betting they took separate planes home at the end of the year.
For all the bone-rattling, bum-chafing, body-battering discomfort though, I will never forget the lesson I learned on the back of a Sudanese lorry: the world is my playground, I can go anywhere, do anything I want. It's not true, of course. There are compromises, practicalities, all manner of obstacles that cramp movement and diminish liberty. But if you've never had a moment when you fully believed in that beautiful illusion, you have missed something rather vital in life.
Postcard from the Past #1 On Your Bike
Postcard from the Past #2 Dismal Self
Postcard from the Past #3 Do Not Photograph This Wall
Postcard from the Past #4 Befuddeled
Postcard from the Past #5 An Island In The Desert
Postcard from the Past #6 Oh, My Darling.
Postcard from the Past #7 Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? And what the fuck are we doing here?
Postcard from the Past #8 Where There Is No Doctor
Postcard from the Past #9 And Drugs And Rock 'n' Roll.
Next week, I Live On The Black Nile And My Home Is Built Of Death And Bricks.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace