Tales by the fireside

RE | Issue 18 | 2020

The night is dark. A group of strangers sit around a fire. To pass the time, one of them—a woman, no longer young—tells a tale of her travels.

I was twenty-two, working in London, in a press library. I knew nothing. The farthest I’d been on my own was a train to Berlin when I was fifteen. But now I had a boyfriend who had given up his PhD to work in Sudan with an aid agency, so I took three weeks off work to go to see him. It was 1980. I got to Heathrow to find that the flight was delayed because of a sandstorm. The airline put me up in a hotel, big white fluffy towels. The next day we flew to Cairo, where everyone got off and the plane filled up with people going on to Khartoum. I looked around and everyone on the plane (except me and one other passenger) was black. I still recall that sudden awareness of being in a minority.

It was midnight when we arrived and, as I stepped down onto the airfield, I thought I had walked into the backflow from the aircraft’s engines, it was so hot. I followed the others to the building where we all pressed forward to pick up our luggage. I had a rucksack. I showed my passport, and that was it, I was done. Where was Jon? He should be here to meet me. I waited, and everyone left. He had to be here. I waited, and no one came. There was an archway and beyond the arch was the night, and I don’t know what. I stood and looked and decided not to go through. There was a room off the hall and I went in and found an airport official there. I said I was stranded. I can’t really remember what I said. But I was stranded. The only address I had for Jon from all our airmail letters was a PO Box at the Sudan Club. I ended up spending the night in this room, sleeping as best I could, head down on the desk.

In the morning they woke me up with a cup of milky Sudanese tea. They were kind. I used their phone and called the British Embassy. They told me to get a taxi to the Sudan Club. I told them that I was a British citizen and it was their job to look after me. So they sent a car and a man from the British Council. He dropped me and my rucksack off at the Sudan Club. That was it. I spent the day sitting by the pool. All the waiters were Sudanese. All the people sitting around, using the pool, ordering drinks, were not. Or not that I could see. I wondered what to do. I got my Chinese textbook out (I was learning Chinese in evening classes in London) and started going over my exercises. People came and sat at my table. They were comparing their passports, to see how many stamps they had from all the countries they had visited. I only had two stamps on two pages. In the afternoon we went to the Grand Hotel on the banks of the Nile for afternoon tea in rattan chairs. When we came back to the Sudan Club, they said that if Jon did not turn up I could spend the night at their place. I thought maybe I should do that but I was a bit uneasy. I sat at my table and kept my eye on the entrance.

An hour later Jon walked in. He had been stuck in Juba because of the sandstorm. We went back to the house he shared with another aid worker, and we had an argument—I think because I was tired of being brave.

 

“I have a tale for you”, says a voice from the shadows. A man is standing outside the circle. He says his piece and then leaves.

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“Nadia and I shuffled along the side of the road”, a woman says, and the group turn to listen.

It was March, there was a chill in the air and my layers of clothing were barely adequate. The sun began to emerge, and I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. The bus to Teilann arrived and from there we began our hike. I was captured by the beauty of this foreign land. I marveled at the nature that seemed to go on to no end. We passed a boat resting in a sea of grass. I’m a city girl, but here I was walking alongside sheep straight out of real life. I could have done with one of their bountiful coats as we ascended into the wind. I started to shiver. My breath was labored. My hands were numb. Tourists stared as they drove past. Had this rare sighting of two black women in the rural mountainside drawn their attention? Or were they wondering at our naiveté? My eyes blinked, water-logged, as we rounded the final bend. I was filled with validation. We stood on what was the end of the earth itself. The jagged cliffs. The vastness of the ocean. The steadiness of the waves as they crashed against the cliffs.

 

There is a momentary silence as they wonder, has she finished her tale? It seems she has.  A Chinese voice speaks, a woman's voice.

On this, my fourteenth time to go to Tibet, I did not choose the direct flight. This time, I stopped in Sichuan, the fifth height of altitude in the world, and from there I went up to Lhasa. My intention was to see Tsogyal glacier, which is in the Shannan region, and then to go to Sapu mountain in Nagqu. On the way to get to the glacier, I was bounced along the bumpy mountain road. I had had no rest, no time for adjusting. I became ill. On my journey to Nagqu, every hour I pray, let me to get better. But at last it is hard to escape the sickness and that night I was attacked with headache and rapid breathing. I sat in bed without sleeping while breathing the oxygen. In the morning I was sent to the hospital. The doctor told me: “You must leave this area with its high altitude if you want to survive.”

This was my first time to take the train alone from Nagqu to Lhasa. At the station, everyone was Tibetan (except me, I am Han). One man carried my rucksack to the platform. Station staff asked, did I need oxygen? Someone helped me board the train. In the carriage, the sickness attacked again and this time I think I fainted. Someone had medicine, someone else gave me water, there were people holding me. When I think back, I feel—love.

 

“Love.” This is a man who up until now has stayed silent. “I have a story for you.”

My wife and I are in the business lounge at Zurich airport. Our extravagantly wonderful honeymoon in Asia is almost over. Only one more leg and we shall be home, in Germany, where our families will wait for us at Frankfurt airport.

We go to board the aircraft. When we arrive at the security control, the officer notices some duty-free items we had purchased in Bangkok. Apparently, we should have checked these in. It is thirty minutes to departure. I decide: why not give it a try? I empty my pockets and pass all my belongings to my wife.

I take off through the unfamiliar building—this is my first time in Zurich airport. After a good run, I arrive at the check-in counter. The clerk looks puzzled. He starts trying to check in my duty-free just as the speakers in the departures hall announce the boarding call for our flight to Frankfurt. I call my wife over my cell. (I had kept this—nobody gives away their cell, right?) I cannot reach her. The clerk tells me it is too late. A final boarding call sounds over the speaker. It is a rush of pure adrenaline now. I learn from the clerk that my wife is at the boarding counter and she wants to know, should she board the aircraft? We cannot speak directly. A decision is made. She will board the aircraft; I will follow.

In this moment I realise that the only things I have with me are my passport and the boarding pass for a now-missed flight. Why did I not hold onto my wallet? I have no cash, no credit cards (and the cell is no help, as Apple Pay is yet to be invented). My heart starts sinking. My ticket was bought through Air Miles. If I must pay for the rebooking, I am bust. I cannot even take a taxi or a train from the airport. I slowly walk to the ticket counter with my head hanging. I tell the clerk my story. My fate is out of my hands.

She looks at me and smiles. I am confused. Then she says, in her lovely Swiss-German: “Sir, you have a valid business class ticket. I will book you on the next flight to Frankfurt, which leaves in one hour.”

What looked like a situation going from bad to worse just got the chance of a happy end. I very much thank the ticket clerk and proceed through the security check (this is now very fast, as I have no belongings) and reach the boarding gate at exactly the time my wife arrives in Frankfurt. The purser had noticed that she had lost her husband and had taken extra care of her (a bottle of champagne). There are no photographs of our parents’ faces staring at my new wife, when she and only she comes out into the arrivals hall. An hour later, I arrive and we are together again; and we have our duty-free—which, if I remember rightly, was perfume.

 

“Do you remember when smoking on a plane was allowed?”—this is a Russian voice—“and air tickets were made of paper?” The woman sits close to the flames.

In those days, I was young, curious and perhaps a little too fond of adventure. My mother would say so. Out of the blue, friends invited me to join them on a trip to Prague. It was spring, I had never been to Prague and, at that time, when the Iron Curtain had just come down, every travel to a foreign country was treated as a miracle. There was only one obstacle. My friends had arranged their trip in advance, tickets, hotel, nothing left to chance. But I would have to teleport myself to the Czech capital through willpower.

Luckily for me, I had a friend who was married to a guy who worked at Sheremetyevo airport customs; and this guy had a colleague whose job it was to form the passenger list for each flight. A few charming smiles later and I was standing at the flight desk holding an air ticket. There was only one obstacle. “This is all I can do for you", my new friend at Sheremetyevo told me. "I don’t know how you will get a flight back to Moscow", he said. "The aircraft are all overbooked.”

Prague was wonderful. The weekend was wonderful—but short, and soon I found myself at the registration desk in Prague airport. I had to get on a flight home, by all means. My ticket was an open ticket. I just had to hope there would be spare seats. There was only one obstacle: a queue of people all in the same situation as mine, all with open-date tickets. That was a bad moment. It didn’t take me long to understand that, under the circumstances, I had to do something extraordinary. An idea crossed my mind. Czech beer is one of the favourite products any male longs for… One package of Plzeňský Prazdroj later, and I was standing at check-in. “I managed to obtain a boarding pass for you,” the airport official said, “but it is for an infant, so there will be no seat—most likely they will put you in the pilot’s cabin—and definitely no food; you had better be ready for that.”

 Wow! The pilot’s cabin! I can tell you, the last thing on my mind was food.

Half an hour later, I was in the pilot’s cabin, I was wearing the pilot’s earphones, and I was 'happy'. After another half an hour, the crew started giving me their lunch. They were tired of eating the same food every day, they told me. A small mountain of meal boxes grew on my knees. I was beyond happy.

Do you want to know what travelling in a pilot’s cabin is like? I’ll tell you. It is, it was, the most unforgettable experience of my life. The sky is like a great junction of crossroads with airplanes flying back and forth. Traffic lights are moving in all directions in just the same way as cars in a big city. Have you seen Fifth Element? And do you recall that scene, the one with the flying taxi cabs? This is how it is.

 

The group stirs as a newcomer approaches the fire. “Do you have a tale for us?” “I have one of flying from east Africa to west Africa.” They beckon her in.

I am a lawyer. At the time, I was living in Tanzania, and I had to get myself over to Cameroon by the Sunday for a kick-off negotiation on a renewables project. Flying within Africa can be hit and miss. I invariably had to take a four a.m. flight out in order to get to the hub at Nairobi with enough buffer to catch a morning flight to wherever I was going. On this occasion, I left home at one a.m. on Sunday morning to make sure of my connections.

My flight from Nairobi to Douala stopped at Bangui on the way. I had not been to the Central African Republic before, so I was curious, of course, but also a little uneasy. I am used to airports with potholed tarmac and eroded concrete and paint, but at Bangui the runway was completely exposed. There was no fencing anywhere. It was crisscrossed with weaving paths—of the sort you see all over rural Africa—and I could see locals walking very close to the airstrip. I noticed UN pick-up vehicles, the pale blue helmets of the peacekeepers. The earth was bright red; and the only other planes on the tarmac that I could see were UN World Food Programme aircraft.

I was on a KLM flight out of Dar es Salaam once, where refugees came on board; they were en route to a new life in Canada; they were clutching plastic bags from the UNHCR and International Organisation for Migration, and smelling of rich, dense wood smoke. But here, at Bangui, the passengers were stylish, sophisticated, they were snapping selfies and catching up on social media. I couldn’t find any connection between them and the scene outside the plane window.

We arrived in Cameroon and, at Douala immigration, I discovered that the visa or rather the copy of the visa that had been organised for me would not suffice: an original was required. I also discovered that my French was not exactly good under pressure. I tried to ask the immigration official to return my passport and all that came into my head was Swahili, irrepressible Swahili. I sat in a waiting room at the airport, observing the cockroaches, trying to get my phone to work. As the minutes slid by, I began to realise that the only option was for me to leave the airport without my passport and take the shuttle bus to the hotel. It was Sunday lunchtime by now. I sat quite alone in an hotel room in Cameroon with no passport, aware that the entire Central African Republic lay between me and my precious family in Tanzania. I have spent years travelling on my own in Africa; this was the only time I felt completely out of my depth.

 

Only two among the group have not yet spoken. The others wait to see who will go first and who will be last. “I am also a lawyer,” says a woman with wild hair, “but my story is different: I was not on my own.”

My mother was the youngest of six children and my father is number eleven out of thirteen. My parents emigrated from Lebanon in 1975. They were the only members of their family to move to Australia. As a result, my two sisters and I grew up with no family around us. We had friends who were surrounded by grandparents and uncles, aunts and cousins, and this made us jealous. My mother passed away in 2001. She never went back to Lebanon. Shortly after her death, I decided to go there on her behalf.

I arrived at Beirut airport and was met by my uncle: my mother’s last surviving sibling. This was the first time I had met him, but I felt a connection so strong that it shocked me. We hugged and sobbed for maybe ten minutes. My uncle was like my mother in so many ways. He was fearless, resilient, witty, resourceful, incredibly generous, and kind. He, too, was a lawyer and was proud that I had also become one. Every day, I was meeting a new uncle, aunt or cousin, trying to remember names, trying to hold onto who was whose son, daughter, brother or sister. I was the exotic cousin from Australia that they had heard about but never thought to meet. I was in Lebanon for nearly four weeks. I explored Lebanon’s ruins, her mountains, caves, beaches, her vibrant restaurants, cafés and nightclubs. When I left, my spending money was still untouched. My cousins were insulted every time I tried to pay for something.

Within three months of my return to Australia, my mother’s brother died.

Once we are allowed to travel again, I should like to take my children to Lebanon. I want them to learn about their ancestry, their heritage. I want them to meet their cousins.

 

The night is dark and silence spills out as they consider the woman’s story. Finally, the one who has waited until the end, a man, speaks. “I have a tale to tell, of a dog.”

We were on the first leg of the trip to our house in Spain. From the start, our journey was fraught. The ferry company contacted us on little notice to say that they had brought the departure time forward by 24 hours in an (in the event, unsuccessful) attempt to avoid an impending storm. We bundled our luggage into the back of our car with our new puppy, Dizzy, and set off in the increasingly torrential rain towards Portsmouth. The dog was furious at being locked in the back. Eyes bulging, ear-splitting yapping, he set about, with an extraordinarily dextrous combination of snout and paws, demolishing the guard between him and us and then claiming his rightful place on Tim’s lap in the front. At the ferry we were required to muzzle him—but no muzzle could resist his sustained attempts to remove it. We smuggled him past the stewards wrapped in a coat.

After settling the dog into our cabin, we went to eat. By now, it seemed that the majority of the passengers were well on their way to cheerful inebriation, combatting apprehension at the weather conditions with light-headed camaraderie. We decided to go to bed early, before the storm hit. When it did, it was extremely violent: the bursar subsequently told us that normally the ferry would not be allowed to sail in such conditions. We spent the night holding onto furniture as the ferry was rocked by massive waves. Dizzy was fine: he obviously had an iron-clad stomach.

The next morning, the ferry was in a mess, broken glass and crockery everywhere. Worse, a group of young partygoers on their way to a music festival—suspiciously bright-eyed, we thought the night before—had broken into the bar during the storm and stolen the stock. When we arrived in Santander, we were told we would have to wait for the police to arrive to deal with the offenders before disembarking. And so the passengers grouped around their cars, most hungover and seasick, all sleep-deprived, waiting for the police—when a request for medical assistance came over the loudspeaker. A woman in the car next to us, a nurse, went to help. A passenger had had a heart attack. On her return, the nurse, displaying a talent for melodrama, looked at us meaningfully and dragged a finger across her throat.

The ambulance arrived; the police arrived; eventually we left, over the mountains, past Salamanca and down to the South. Dizzy was strapped into the back seat, yapping angrily. After six hours, we arrived at the house of the Condes de Orellana in Trujillo, a town that achieved great wealth at the time of the discovery and colonisation of America by the Spaniards. Francisco Pizarro—the conqueror of Peru—is everywhere remembered in Trujillo. The original Conde de Orellana was the first European to see the Amazon and, although his search for El Dorado was less successful, he accumulated sufficient wealth to build a magnificent mansion in his home town, furnished to the highest level possible. The current Count, a short man with scoliosis, stared at us—and at our frantically yapping cur—with undisguised horror. We pleaded with him: the stress of the journey; if we could walk the puppy and feed him, he would calm down; reluctantly, the Count agreed to let us in, comforted perhaps by the knowledge that there were no other guests to complain. He showed us to our bedroom: four-poster bed, the whole room covered in exquisite textiles acquired over the centuries by the Orellanas. Silk, cashmere, vicuna; carpets, tapestries, cushions, throws everywhere. It was like sleeping in a museum.

We fed the dog and ourselves and went to bed, relieved that the worst of the journey was over. The next morning, we woke to find that Dizzy did not have the cast-iron stomach we had imagined. He had been extravagantly ill all over the room. But, displaying the same exquisite meticulousness as when knocking down barriers and removing muzzles, he had carefully worked his way around the room, leaving mess only on the tiles and floorboards left exposed between the antique carpets. We did what we had to do. We cleaned, packed our bags, paid and left, taking the unrepentant dog with us.

 

One by one, they stand up and go their separate ways. The dying embers of the fire watch them go, and the stars come out.

 

Our travellers were Nicola Liu in London | Robert Pattemore in London | Raisa D’Oyley in New York | Rosalie Luo in Beijing Bernhard Fiedler in Frankfurt | Natalia Mushinska in Moscow | Laura Kiwelu, formerly in Tanzania, now in London | Claudine Salameh in Sydney | Kenneth Gray in London