Distant Suns – Excerpts

Distant Suns by Sam Manicom

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We reached the last section of the tarmac just as the sun dipped blood red below the silhouetted line of densely packed palm forest. As it did so, the sky started its rapid change from flaming orange into a deep midnight blue. This far south from the city of Mombassa, the sky was clear and quite unadulterated by man-made light. The lack of city pollution and wood-smoke from cooking fires meant that everything around us was sharp-edged. The clear midnight blue was only broken by spangles of brilliantly white stars.

But the dirt road in front of us disappeared into the dangerously dark shadows under the trees. There was just enough light left in the sky to be able to see that within a few metres, the gravel changed into patches of soft sand and rutted potholes. The cicadas were in full song in a warm slightly dank air that was scented with just a hint of tangy sea breeze. Beneath me, my bike engine ticked over calmly as it waited patiently to be told what to do next.

The air is so full of scents that it’s worth taking the time to just sit and breathe it in. Spices, roasting goat meat, maize cobs cooking on braziers, baking bread, the sea, fresh fish, roasting red-skinned peanuts, and coconut oil all mingle with the heavy scents of petrol and diesel engines in an atmosphere that’s also filled with full-on African city noises. Trucks, buses and taxis battle their way through frequently potholed streets that are lined with stalls or crowded with the pushing rush of humanity – which pushes and rushes at a particularly African speed. The language of the coast is Swahili – an audible sign of the city’s history. It’s made up of snippets of each of those former controlling cultures. ‘Hakuna matata’, means ‘No worries’ and that describes the pace at which those on foot move through the streets. In spite of the sea breeze that does manage to sneak through the old city into the new, it’s too hot for anything to move at any great speed. Above the roar of ancient buses and trucks, the sounds of horns bounce off the walls to briefly dominate before being lost in the mash of life on the street.

Suddenly, her bike leapt wildly over a set of heat heaves and she was instantly heading straight for the scrub-covered verge! There was a ditch there too – I’d just been looking at how deep it was. I could see her grabbing her brakes with every bit of strength she had and I could see how her eyes were wide with fear. The bike was skipping madly and I was sure she was about to come a cropper, big time.

But no, with surprising strength and huge willpower she managed to pull her bike to a halt, just short of the ditch. When I got to her she was sitting on the bike shaking with the after effect of effort and fear. She said, ‘I can’t do this!’ and tears rolled down her face. They weren’t tears of fear, they were tears of frustration that she’d even thought, ‘I can’t do this.’

Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar Town, is a place that’s full of tall old buildings and alleyways that twist and turn their way across it. At ground level, groups of men or children sit and play games or chat. Stalls set into the rough rendered stone walls sell a little of everything – always dust-covered and frequently out of date, but still available. The gem for us though was the night-time fish market on the edge of Stone Town. The streets are so ill-lit that some would consider them dark and dangerous, but for us the pale light cast a romantic air over the streets and set the mood for the walk down to the waterfront. Here, the local fishermen have set up their stalls and the fish market is a place for promenading, as well as buying fresh fish. All the seafood that’s being cooked and sold is virtually straight out of the sea. Tuna, octopus, squid, some sort of mullet and an endless number of types of fish the like of which I’d never seen before. Alongside these stalls, which are floating delicious scents out into the night air, are the sellers of freshly squeezed fruit juices, of piping hot mandazi doughnuts, kebabs of goat meat and also those who cater for fizzy drink addicts!

Roberto was a flamboyant character and the archetypal ‘wheeler-dealer’. He was fat, dressed in beige and cream-coloured clothes, and had a giant red polka-dot handkerchief with which he was constantly mopping his brow. His hair was slightly long and greased back with some sort of scented hair lotion. His armpits were drenched in sweat and the back of his shirt was a solid dark, wet stain where he’d been sitting on his car seat. The backs of his thighs were equally stained and as he waddled rapidly from official to official, his trousers seemed to squeak from the compressed movement of damp fabric between his chunky legs.

He treated all the officials as if they were members of his family, hugging each and every one, but he did so with a respect that showed that he knew just how far he could go. Either that or he had worked out that border officials and soldiers at checkpoints don’t particularly enjoy being recipients of sweaty hugs and would do all they could to get him on his way, and out of theirs. Whatever, it worked and we seemed to be swept along in his large slipstream as he bounded around the border and checkpoints with far more energy than a man of his size should have had. I have no doubt that we escaped numerous demands to pay considerable amounts of ‘dash’ (bribe money) to the officials thanks to Roberto and his ‘sweaty cuddle system’.

As we headed on down (towards Patagonia), the wind added a chill factor to temperatures that were already too cool for my liking. The countryside opened up and we began to ride a road of a thousand gently rolling valleys. This really is ‘the open road’. To the sides, foot-high tussock grass waved its resilient yellow stems like silk in the wind, like a vast field full of blond heads whose hair is streaming out according to the whims of the fickle gusts.

There were no trees and nothing, except the very occasional town, seemed to be able to slow down the wind. The strong gusts turned into vicious, unpredictable attacks as we headed further south. When I wasn’t battling to keep the bike upright, I wondered what on earth I was doing there. I rode heaving at the handlebars and felt as if I were arm-wrestling with a giant and that he was toying maliciously with me; teasing, pushing and shoving. Every so often he would abruptly change his mind. All the strength I was putting into stopping the bike falling one way would suddenly tip the bike the other way as the wind dropped momentarily.

We found an old and derelict ACA (Argentine Motoring Organisation) petrol station. It was all closed down but it looked as if someone was living there and there was be plenty of space to stick our tent up without getting in anyone’s way. Birgit went and knocked on the door. Moments later a man who looked just like a shrivelled old mountain goat stuck his head out. He had a long, thin face which was topped by long straggly white hair, and his chin sported a perfect goatee beard. His voice didn’t match his face though – it was deep and humorous. ‘Si, of course you can camp here – choose your spot and make yourself welcome.’ The cost? ‘Nada, you are very welcome.’ When Birgit asked if it was safe to drink the water from the water tank on wheels outside his cabin, he replied with twinkling eyes, ‘Of course it’s safe to drink. After all, the worst that will happen is that you’ll die!’

This road is a pure history lesson and it was in such good condition that we were easily able to maintain a good average speed, so there was plenty of time to stop and look at points of interest. It’s a road of broken dreams and fortunes made. Every so often you come across the sad sight of a ruined mining town. Mud brick walls which are slowly returning to the ground are all that remains of the family homes, shops and businesses. These ghost towns made me think of old candles that had dwindled down to mere stubs. It wasn’t hard to imagine them as bustling busy places with all the sounds of human life and endeavour that you’d expect from a small mining town. Now, the wind whistles and the only other sound comes from the geckos that scuttle across the sun-baked walls and rounded mounds of disintegrated mud brick.

The cemeteries were particularly bleak and sad; stark reminders of lost dreams, they always seemed to be set a hundred metres away from the villages. The perimeter fencing was mostly made of picket-length strips of iron and barbed wire, which in some sections looked as if it had been twisted by time into a mad woman’s hair do. In other places it sagged and drooped as if it had simply given up any idea of protecting anything. The headpieces, either fallen, or leaning at crazy angles over the mounds of earth, were mostly made of iron too. Anything that was iron was pitted and had turned the distinctive flaky burgundy or orange colours of rust. A few graves were marked with bleached and splitting lengths of wood that in any other climate would have long since rotted away. All these shapes amalgamated to form an intricate and sad silhouette. I wondered if my mining ancestor had ended up in one of these graves – there was no way to tell.

It was quite normal to be riding gently around a blind corner to be confronted by some ancient heap of ex US junk on wheels, being driven with flare, panache and a total disregard for any other road user! I decided the Peruvian drivers must come from the same gene pool as Indian and Pakistani drivers. Either that or the god they all worshiped, regardless of name, must be the same controller of fate and destiny. As in ‘If it’s God’s will that I die today then keeping to my side of the road won’t make any difference anyway’. The roadside shrines continued, but in greater density!

The number of checkpoints should have made us realise that we were riding along a little-used track that skirted the border. The fact that the soldiers were so surprised to see us should have been the next clue – though we were used to being stared at, because of our novelty value. It should also have struck us as being strange that there were villages where our map said there were none, and where there were supposed to be towns we didn’t find any. At the time I wondered if they were off a side road that we’d missed. Not a logical thought really, though the map we had was probably the worst I’d ridden with to date. Eventually one of the soldiers at a big checkpoint helped the penny drop. Thankfully we didn’t seem to have trodden on anyone’s toes, the guards had been happy to see something new going on, and we were pretty much at the end of the track anyway. By this time we were back up in the mountains and they seemed like old friends. I loved the constantly bending roads and the views were stunning. I like riding above the clouds. It felt quite unnatural and was a delightful thing to be able to do whenever the opportunity arose. It’s bizarre to be on a bike looking down at clouds, as if you were doing so from an aeroplane…

In the very early mornings, when the sun was still low in the sky and so pale that it had almost no colour at all the market looked as if it was bathed in silver. The rooftops in front of the sun’s rays took on dark and mysterious shapes that blended and connected the forms of the different buildings into one sharp-edged, jagged line. Where there were streets in line with the rising sun, the cobbles took on the look of a river full of ripples and eddies. The silver below the buildings hid the years of old grease and grime on the stalls. Men’s breaths billowed out, clouding the air and women breathed into their shawls, leaving dewdrops of condensation that glittered in the sun. Dogs shivered beneath stalls made of chunky blocks of wood, plastic drinks crates, old bicycle wheels and sheets of tin.

The fashion shops made us laugh. There were none of the serious-faced, skinny but elegant mannequins that we were used to. Our mannequins sell us images of how retailers think we would like to look. The mannequins in these shops sold clothes with their smiles. They all had beaming grins and looked as if they were on the verge of breaking into full-blown fits of laughter. The psychology was interesting! Would you be happy if you bought this set of clothes? Absolutely!

With real style Sir Henry chose to die outside a brothel, and with nowhere else within pushing distance that had a yard for parking, the ‘Madame’ rather uncertainly showed us the way inside. We parked the bikes under the huge tree that dominated her yard. A door in the turquoise wall to the left of us opened, and a weary but satisfied looking couple quietly left.

We were shown to our room. It was damp, with mould on the wall, but had a fan that worked, and had a pipe on the wall of the bathroom that happily threw out a reasonable quantity of water at an angle of almost 90°. Perfect for face washing! We later worked out that if we let the jet of water hit the opposite wall of the shower, the spray that would bounce back at us showered us very nicely. We fell onto the bed, and we lay and contemplated our problems.

For more than two hundred and fifty years, Cartagena was part of the Spanish Crown but on November the 11th 1811, the city declared its independence. It then began another chapter in its history that has been anything but easy. It’s sometimes known as ‘The Heroic City’ and from what I could glean this title is well earned and reflects the life of the city. We loved it.

The atmosphere was rich with history, and the colours bright and cheerful. Out of our bike kit the warmth was wonderful, and the people were fun. Though Cartagena is Colombia’s fifth largest city, it didn’t feel that big at all. Based in the old town as we were, it was easy to think that this was all that existed. And after rides out to other parts of the city, we were always glad to return to what we quickly began to think of as home. If we weren’t careful we could have got well and truly stuck there.