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Across the Sahara Desert on Kinetic Honda scooter. Chapter 8

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Living as a Beggar in InGuezzam!

The people who had apparently KiDNAPPED me found that I was not worth kidnapping. I had no money, nothing at all. I was worthless. I was a liability.

All my clothes, money, passport, sleeping bag – everything, was left in our GD240 Jeep. At the checkpoint in the morning I had just walked into their 504 with my notebook and whatever clothes I was wearing. We were supposed to be friends traveling together as a group. They were supposed to be guiding us but for reasons I could not comprehend, they had abandoned us and I became the fall guy.

I had no money, or rather the couple of hundred Rupees that I had were worthless in this place as was proved when my kidnapper threw away my money a short while ago.

It was almost dark. People were disappearing into their homes or wherever they lived in this godforsaken place. It became dark. There were no people around.

 

It was probably closing time for restaurant Yassine. The owner, shorter than me but fairer, came to the table and said. “Hah Hindu” and motioned with his hands for me to get out. It was closing time.

I walked out. Minutes later Mr. Yassine came out, locked the door and left. There was nobody around. In Guezzam had gone to sleep. The desert was asleep.

It was cold. Temperature must have been zero or even less. For a tropical creature like me it was hell. I was wearing adequate clothing to survive inside our Jeep or inside the 220 in daytime. But here in the open, at night, with raging winds, the chill factor was killing. With a frame (height) of 174 cm (five-foot-eight) and a weight of 64 kg (140 pounds) I had hardly any fat on my body. Fat is essential for keeping out the cold. That is why tropicals are hardly ever fat while Americans and Europeans have fat. They need it.

What do I do?

Where do I sleep?

Is sleep possible?

What is sleep?

Security was hardly an issue. There was no threat from animals. There were no animals in this place except camels. And camels don’t eat or bother humans.

As to humans, I was worthless, as proved by my kidnappers, except maybe for homosexuals!

The biggest issue was temperature. Sleeping in the open, on the ground, without adequate clothing or bed, at temperatures below zero? Could I survive the night?

I looked around for garbage: discarded sheets of plastic wrappers, discarded newspapers, discarded paper wrappings – anything, to cover as much of my body as I possibly could.

Luckily I did find some plastics and some paper sheets. I decided to lean against the wall of restaurant Yassine, cover myself with paper and plastic as much as I could and spend the night. I felt exactly like a beggar sleeping on the footpaths (sidewalks) of Mumbai (Bombay).

I was resigned to my fate. This was New-Years-Eve, 31st December 1991. And here I was in pitch dark, in the middle of the Sahara Desert, with no money, no friends or acquaintances, no communication, no food, no water, temperature below zero, and just one wall to lean against and no walls to protect me from the raging cold winds, and hoping to be still alive tomorrow morning in this godforsaken place!

I thought of my KiHo group. Where were they? It occurred to me that they just wouldn’t be able make it in as much time as me and my kidnappers did in the 504 and the 220. We were almost flying at 60-80 kmpH, while the KiHos just couldn’t do more than 15 or 20. We had covered almost 500 km in @ 14 hours. The KiHos just wouldn’t be able to do it.

How I passed the night I don’t remember. What I do remember is that a lifetime passed during the night. I thought of things that I had never thought before: Parents (both were alive then), children, wife, extended family & friends. Things I used to take for granted.

Right now, I could not even take tomorrow morning for granted!

Somehow the night passed. Dawn – daylight happened. I was still alive. People stirred. The wheel of life began turning again.

In time, restaurant Yassine opened. People trickled in and out. I was sitting on the floor, just by the side of the entry door of restaurant Yassine. People might have thought I was a beggar. I sure looked like one, and wouldn’t mind if someone threw a Dinar or Dirham or Dollar at me.

I hadn’t eaten for more than 24 hours. The last I ate was a very early morning breakfast before joining the queue at Checkpoint Charlie leaving
Tamanghrasset yesterday. Until now my mind was more engrossed in matters of immediate survival, as in: “How to survive till the next possible meal?”

Inside restaurant Yassine there was food. Even boiled rice with boiled chunks of camel meat topped with camel blood is food. That is what Tuaregs eat and have been eating since Tuaregs began.

But I couldn’t go in. Mr. Yassine had already thrown me out last night and without money how could I go in? My credibility was zero.

About three hours into daylight I stood up. It was New Years Day 1992, January 1st! I had to try and make some contact somewhere. What about my KiHo friends? Where to enquire? Is there any govt. here? Is there any police?

I walked around. Tried to talk to people, but language was a problem. Somehow I managed to get to the Police Station, a hundred meters from restaurant Yassine. In French, the police are called Gendarmerie. I tried to explain to them my predicament. I don’t know how much they understood, but in any case they were of no help at that time.

I wandered around. The whole settlement of In Guezzam in January 1992 wouldn’t be more than a hundred meters long and not more than 30 meters wide. Restaurant Yassine appeared to be the focal point of social interaction in InGuezzam. There was also a petrol pump, and there was always a lineup of vehicles waiting to fill up.

Occasionally a car or two would pull up near restaurant Yassine and their occupants would go and eat in the restaurant. Almost all of them appeared to be white Europeans – exact nationalities I couldn’t make out because they were not speaking English.

I stuck around restaurant Yassine hoping some English speakers would arrive. I was lucky. Around noon or after that, two Nissan Power Wagon mini trucks, with winches fitted on their front fenders drove up. Four males and two females, all white, got out and made their way to Yassine. They were talking among themselves and they were speaking ENGLiSH! From their accent I could make out that they were Austraa-ilian, the double aa giving indication of their identity.

I followed them and accosted them before they entered restaurant Yassine.

“Austraailian?”, I asked.

“Yeah” one guy answered.

“May I join you?” I asked as all walked towards restaurant Yassine.

“Sure”, he said.

I tagged along. At least if I entered with a paying group, Mr. Yassine would not throw me out – hopefully!

Six of them and myself, sat at one table. I told them my story. They said I could eat what I want. They would pay for it. I ate like I didn’t know when or where my next meal was coming from.

These people had just crossed over into Algeria from Republic of Niger, coming from south and going north where we had come from.

I told them about how I got separated from my KiHo friends and about the Tuareg attacks and the Tuareg scare that was doing the rounds in Tamanghrasset.

One among this group spoke French. She agreed to go with me to the Gendarmerie (police) station. She and another female accompanied me to the station where I had been not very long ago but could not communicate. She explained my situation to the Gendarmerie in French.

They said they were on wireless, and none of their wireless contacts nor travelers arriving from the north had seen “Ein khat-khat et dwi petit-moto” in the Piste. ‘Ein khat-khat’ in French meant “0ne ‘4x4’ (a reference to our GD240 Glendwagen Jeep) and ‘dwi petit-moto’ meant our ‘two KiHos.’

I was pretty depressed. We came back to restaurant Yassine. The Australians were ready to leave. There was no hotel or living accommodation in InGuezzam. Local people had their own place to sleep while travelers slept in their cars. In any case In Guezzam was hardly a tourist paradise and people would stop only to fill up – food, water and fuel – and move on.

I wasn’t sure what I should do?

Should I go North with the Australians to look for my KiHo friends? I asked them. They said sure. There was space in their two Nissans. In the desert, travelers always help each other. But they were not sure we would definitely cross the path of my KiHo friends. There was no really ‘marked’ path and people could be correctly going towards their respective destinations in opposite directions without seeing each other, the continuous sandstorm adding to the invisibility factor.

Or should I go south, and try to get to Lagos, which was our final destination? How would I cross borders? I had no passport nor any money nor any protection against the wind nor any sleeping gear? Everything was left in our GD240 Jeep.

I decided to stay on in In Guezzam, at least till tomorrow. Live one day – or one night – at a time.

The Australians left. There was still many hours of daylight left. If one has to anyway sleep in the car, why not cover as much distance as possible while there is still daylight to get out of this godforsaken terrain?

I sat on the ground near restaurant Yassine, not like a beggar at its door but a few feet away, near enough to hear people speak so that if I heard people speaking English I could make out the language and speak with them.

In the event no other English speaking group came that day. I had had a substantial lunch, so food-wise I could survive another night, but what about the cold?

I carefully looked for more plastic sheets, large newspaper sheets and such other material which I could cover myself with, sleeping in the open at night in the howling freezing desert. Since I had started my rubbish collection fairly early in the day today, I got a lot of suitable stuff. Tonight would be slightly less miserable than last night – hopefully. I had collected more suitable garbage than yesterday. I remembered the rag-pickers back home in Mumbai (then Bombay) India.

The Bombay rag pickers were economically a level above me: They sold the rags for money. They earned money by selling rags. I couldn’t sell the rags I collected even if there were buyers. I needed them for survival – Tonight, Now! Besides, who would like to buy rubbish in the middle of the desert?

Darkness fell across the land. People thinned out. Mr. Yassine closed and left. The place became empty. I leaned against the wall wrapped in paper and plastic. Another night in the open. At least I was still alive.

The night passed. How? I dunn0! Can’t remember. It was 22 years ago!

What I do remember is: shitting in the desert. I had a full lunch yesterday. Obviously I had to shit. I walked away from the settlement, maybe 50 feet. Going any further would be dangerous. One could lose sight of the settlement and get lost in the desert. Human direction senses go awry in the sandstorm when visibility is hardly 20 or 25 feet. When I thought I was reasonably alone, I lowered my pants and let go. What about cleaning my ass?

Aha! What is sand for? God given cleaning agent!

The next day, 2nd January 1992 was more or less the same. A Finnish group arrived around noon, speaking a mixture of English and Finnish. I spoke to them. They asked me to join them in Yassine. I did.

I told them my story. They were going south. They had come from Tamanghrasset and they had seen the KiHos and our Jeep on the way.

I was elated. My KiHo group was alive and progressing.

“How far behind would they be?” I asked the Finns.

“Not very far, but the scooters are really slow and getting stuck. At best they could reach In Guezzam tomorrow.

The Finns paid the total bill including what I ate, and moved on.

Another lunch. Another day survived. I was alive. How long could this go on? Hopefully: not very long. The Finnish group had seen my friends and the KiHos. They should arrive tomorrow.

I was looking at spending another night in the open. I started looking for better quality garbage to cover myself for the night. I collected whatever I thought would be useful – plastic sheets, large newspaper sheets, large wrappers, whatever – and kept the stuff against the wall of restaurant Yassine.

Night came. People thinned out, vanished. Yassine closed up. All became quiet. I slept: Like a Bombay beggar rolled up in newspaper and plastic. I was becoming good at this. This was my third night as a beggar in In Guezzam.

January 3rd 1992 dawned. I had survived another night in the open. As I said, there was a roof but no walls to protect me from the howling winds. I stirred. People started appearing. Yassine opened.

I got up, walked around, mingled. Looking for English speakers arriving from the North and going south who might have seen my KiHo group. The best place to catch desert news in this part of the Sahara was restaurant Yassine. I stuck around.

Two Land Rovers drove up. Land Rover is a typical British Marquee! These people had to be British. Six people, all white Europeans got out and made their way to restaurant Yassine speaking English!

I said to them, “You British?”

“Ya” 0ne of them answered.

“May I join you?” I asked.

“Sure” was the reply. I sat with them.

Before I could say anything, one of them asked me, “You Indian? You the guy who got separated from your Indian friends driving those scooters?”

“Ya” I said, “How do you know?”

“We crossed them about two hours ago, but they will take longer, maybe another hour or two. We stopped and spoke with them. They told us about you”.

I was thrilled. I would meet my friends soon. They were alive. So was I.

The Brits ordered some food. I also ate. We chatted. They left and joined the line of vehicles waiting to fill fuel. I joined them to continue chatting in English.

The queue for filling fuel was quite long and moving slowly. It took very long: Maybe an hour, maybe two. 0ur turn came and we filled up.

The Land Rover guys were ready to leave. It was not yet noon, and they could drive another six to seven hours before dark. Nobody wastes daylight in the desert except maybe Tuaregs.

 

You are here: Autobiography Across the Sahara Desert on Kinetic Honda scooter. Chapter 8

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