From meadows to minarets

First things first; I am not dead. Obviously.

It has been a strange seven months. The last time I wrote for this site was back in June. I sat down and wrote from the ancient oak desk in my small rented room in Lyme Regis, a small town on the South coast of England. It was summer, and sunlight streamed in through the window in front of me.

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Outside, the rolling green fields and trees turned into crumbling cliffs that abruptly dropped off into the blue bay, the iconic Cob jutting out into the rough waves. It was then that I posted the update on here, stating I would be heading off into the unknown to live and work in the Middle East, in one of the strictest Islamic countries on the planet. I then didn’t update the site for seven months. My bad.

So I am alive, just to clear up any confusion if any of you readers had assumed that my penchant for dangerous travel had gotten me killed. Somewhat surprisingly, I have survived here almost half a year, and haven’t been arrested, beheaded, bombed, or kidnapped.

Yet.

With that out the way, I should probably update you guys about everything that has been going on here. A lot has happened since I left the safety, comfort and mind-numbing, unbelievable boredom of the English countryside. As soon as I finished my postgrad, I began stocking up on travel gear and packing. I began packing with the mentality that I was packing for the rest of my life. I had vowed that I would never return to live or work in the UK again. From then on, it was just me and the road, moving from country to country, job to job, and seeing where I ended up.

Not convinced that moving to the Middle East was exciting enough, I had already hatched a somewhat crazy plan. Before I began my new job, I planned on travelling out to South America again in July, for a second Machu Picchu expedition. An old friend of mine and I had decided to do the Salkantay trek, up to 4630m above sea level, followed by a boat journey along the Amazon river into Manaus, then down to Rio de Janeiro. That trip itself was fairly eventful, to say the least. It involved climbing mountains, trekking through jungle, meeting plenty of interesting people, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and picking up gorgeous girls in nightclubs, but that’s a whole other story.

After three weeks of intense travel from the Pacific coast of South America in Lima to the Altantic coast in Rio, I was exhausted. I was already looking forward to the Middle East, something I would never have expected myself to be thinking whilst in Brazil, a country that for me personally, comes pretty close to paradise. I had found, to my surprise, that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the trip as much as I expected because I felt like I was wasting my time. I had no real reason to be there, no purpose. Instead, I was itching to focus on my work and to move forward with my projects. I couldn’t get any real work done on the road beyond writing up notes about each day of travel. That said, there was plenty to write about.

Hungover from the night before, I stood on Copacabana beach looking out over the Atlantic on the morning of my last day in the country. A few hours earlier, I had walked a girl back to her place in the middle of a favela. At 4am. Through the dark, winding alleyways. A lone, highly intoxicated foreigner, wearing decent clothes and shiny shoes. I was still surprised to be in one piece.

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I watched the waves as they crashed over themselves and I wondered what the fuck I was about to do with my life. I knew that my entire life was about to be uprooted and that everything I knew was about to be turned upside down. Yet, I loved the feeling. That quiet before the storm, that fleeting moment of perfect serenity before you take that first step on what you know will be a long, unpredictable journey into the unknown.

Then, on the 10th of August, I flew back to the UK to repack my gear and briefly recover before my flight out to the Middle East on the 13th of August.

Going directly from the sunny, golden beaches, ice-cold caipirhinhas and beautiful women of Brazil to the sweltering heat, dust, sand and black abayas of a sexually-repressed desert society within the space of three days, I can’t say I have ever experienced a more profound sense of culture shock in my entire life.

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Travel-weary and jet-lagged, I stumbled off the plane and mumbled my way through an awkward conversation with the customs agent, who clearly spoke no English. He simply sat there and eyed me suspiciously whilst taking photos and fingerprints. I walked out into the arrivals lounge, a drab, grey room filled with a sea of white thobes, beards and what looked like a small army of ninjas. The school had told me that I’d be picked up at the airport. I looked around. Nobody was waiting for me. No sign with my name on, nobody waving or even making eye-contact, beyond a few unfriendly glares from people apparently not too happy about more infidels arriving in their beloved city.

Well, great. I was stood alone in a foreign airport, with no idea what I was supposed to do. I didn’t know the country, or even the city, didn’t speak the language, didn’t have the address of the school, didn’t have a phone number, didn’t have an internet connection and didn’t have any local money.

Thankfully, after almost an hour, the bus driver turned up, accompanied by a couple of other teachers from the school. Our employer had sent a bus to pick us up from the airport. It was a battered white bus, and the school logo had been scraped off the side after ISIS made bomb threats on Twitter. I was told this whilst jet-lagged and culture-shocked, sitting on that bus as it shot down the highway, weaving through traffic as our driver shouted angrily into his phone in Arabic and narrowly avoided multiple high-speed collisions with various other vehicles.

I quickly realised that in this country there are no traffic laws. Everyone drives like a complete nutjob, each secure in their belief that everything is inshallah – Allah’s will. If they die in a fiery wreck, their grisly remains splattered across the highway like strawberry jam on toast, then so be it – inshallah. It was Allah’s will, and there was nothing they could have done to avoid it. Good for them, not so reassuring for me.

We pulled into the entrance to the walled compound, a western enclave in a sea of strict Wahhabi Islam, at almost midnight. Around the compound perimeter a secondary defense of chained-together concrete blocks prevented cars from parking next to the walls. Multiple signs, in stark black and red, warned against taking photographs near the compound. The high walls were topped with vicious barbed wire coils and imposing inward-sloping metal fencing, preventing anyone from seeing into the compound. Or, as I later realised, shooting bullets or RPG’s into the compound from the surrounding apartment buildings. As we drove into the compound and approached the security checkpoint, there was no sign of movement from inside the hidden, camouflaged bunkers each side of the entrance and exit.

The bus, along with every other vehicle entering the compound, had to be checked for explosives by the disheveled, rag-tag bunch of soldiers at the security checkpoint. They all looked either too old, or too young, to be of much use in any kind of real conflict. Even in the state that I was in; jet-lagged, exhausted, and hungover from Rio, I’m pretty sure I could have both overpowered and outsmarted the fat guards at the gate. Not the most reassuring entrance to a supposedly secure compound.

Of course, Sod’s Law kicked in and at the exact time of my arrival, there was a complete power-cut. No lights, no water, no air-conditioning. The entire compound was plunged into darkness. It was a very hot summer night and extremely humid. My white shirt was quickly saturated with sweat. I sat in the mini-bus as we drove around the dark compound and the driver let people into their villas. I was last. He gave me his last cigarette, which I lit gratefully, and the keys to my new home for the next two years. Then he drove off.

So there I was, alone at last in the pitch black heat. Throughout the previous year, since the moment I stepped off the plane back from Colombia, I had only had one goal in mind. One goal that superseded everything else; get the fuck out of the UK. Nothing else had mattered. All of my efforts and all of my energy had been directed at a sole purpose: to engineer my escape from the dystopian nightmare of my own country.

Suddenly, all of that was gone. My plan had worked. I had escaped. I was suddenly hit with a deep sense of emptiness, now that my goal had been accomplished.

So there I was.

It was about 35 degrees Celsius, just after midnight. I was sat on my own in the dark, in just my boxers, on the faded sofa in my empty villa, munching on a bowl of slightly stale cornflakes beneath the fading blue glow of my headlamp. As the power was still out, I had no running water, no lights and no air conditioning. The place was completely silent apart from the tapping of the keys as I began to type, echoing in the vastness of the living room.

That was the sum of all of my life choices, all of my decisions until that day. Sat completely, utterly alone, in the dark, in one of the strictest Islamic countries in the Middle East. I had abandoned all of my friends, my family and the girl that I loved in order to pursue this path.

At that point I began to question my life choices and wondered what the fuck I was doing out in the Middle East.

***

I moved out here with absolutely no idea what to expect, and have still been surprised at every turn. In the short time that I have been here, I have met some great new people, experienced floods and sandstorms, learnt that my wealthy Arab students are some of the most difficult and annoying pupils on the face of the planet, learnt the basics of Arabic and am now a qualified diver after learning to scuba dive in the pristine Red Sea.

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So, right now, things are going well. Life in the sandbox is far from the quiet, self-imposed exile that I imagined. For the most part, the people who decide to come and work here are an interesting bunch of characters, and there is plenty going on.

As for the next adventure, well, I figure that I should take advantage of living in such a convenient location so I’m heading into Africa in less than forty-eight hours’ time. Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries on the planet, with a brutal, bloody history and consequently very little tourism. Perfect. I just hope that the prediction that I wrote down a few years ago does not turn out to be true; ‘I’ll probably get killed backpacking around a warzone in Africa.’

On the more optimistic side, if I can make it out again in one piece, it’ll be great writing material.

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