One of the great pleasures of driving yourself abroad is the ability to get off the well trodden tourist trail. I like nothing better than arriving in a small village in the middle of nowhere which doesn’t appear on the map. Approaching a group of elderly locals sat in the village square, map in hand, uttering unintelligible words in a strange language, the lost driver abroad is usually regarded like a visitor from another planet! These encounters usually end in confusion, but with smiles,handshakes, embraces and an occasional toast of the local firewater. If the locals are willing, I usually try to snap a photographic momento of our chance encounter.
In years to come, I meet those locals all over again as their faces grin back from my PC screen , and I’m left wondering whether they ever remember the day that a strange foreigner in a small rental car happened to land in their tiny village.I’ve enjoyed roadside encounters across the world, and as I sit looking at my computer screen in England, I’m instantly transported back to the time, place and circumstances when my life, and that of a random person in a distant land, collided for a few brief moments. I look at those faces and wonder what that person is doing at this moment? Whats happened in their life since our paths crossed and how different is their life to mine?
Sometimes, the photo records a brief roadside direction-seeking exchange. (Though these are rarely actually brief, as documented in ‘The Art of Being Lost’ Road Trip tale) Sometimes however, the photo conjures up a more poignant memory. These two little boys remind me of a close call on a road in Mozambique. In fact, these boys may have saved my life. We were travelling on a dusty road near Inhambane and our attention was attracted to something bright, blowing in the breeze in the red scrubland to our right. We slowed down and saw a wood hut selling ornamental wooden mobiles. Miles from nowhere, and being sold from a tumbledown wooden shack, the bright objects presented an incongruous sight. We stopped the car and the two shop assistants appeared, in the form of the two young brothers pictured. They seemed a little apprehensive but we admired their wares and they posed for a picture. As I clicked the shutter, a pick up truck sped past with two teenage boys in the flatbed, clinging to the roof. We showed the little boys their image in the viewfinder to the usual delight of children the world over, and got back on our way. After driving for a couple of minutes, we saw locals running up the road ahead and spreading tree branches in the road- a sure sign of an accident in Africa. We rounded a bend to see a head-on collision between the pick up truck and a saloon car, which seemed to have approached the summit of the hill in the centre of the road. The two teenagers had been thrown from the flatbed of the truck, and though conscious, both were badly injured. We stopped to help and I couldn’t help cringing as I imagined the impact on our small hatchback, had we arrived at the hilltop a couple of minutes earlier…
Also in Mozambique, we came across these kids playing in a muddy pool by the roadside. Encouraged by their older playmates and by the presence of our camera, these two boys rolled and wallowed in the mud like a couple of baby hippos before emerging for their photo opportunity!
Local hospitality is often offered to the visiting stranger and these two old chaps were already well into their bottle of vodka when I stopped to ask directions in Ukraine. Their fire engine red eyes and florid noses ,slurred speech and potent breath told me they wouldn’t be much use at direction finding, though they were keen for me to join them in a toast…or two, or three. Not wishing to appear stand-offish I downed a small glug of the firewater, but had to decline a second. After all I had to drive…and it was only 9 o’clock in the morning!
I encountered this old couple in the countryside of Moldova as they tended their cattle by the side of one of the countries main roads. We had no shared language but I was able to make them aware of where I was from , and the old man nodded approvingly (I generally run through the full range of translations – Inglaterra, Angleterre, Engleska, Anglia…until someone shouts Ah! David Beckham!). We admired their cattle, pointed out our destination on the map, and asked if we could take a photo. The husband was keen but his wife less so, obviously telling him that her cattle herding clothes weren’t her best outfit, but he persisted and pulled her towards him. Even though we couldn’t understand a word of what they said, his message was clear as he put his arm round her – “You’re beautiful to me, whatever you wear”. She blushed and he beamed with pride and we were left marvelling at how love can survive around 50 years of a hard life in Eastern Europe.
Another old couple we encountered had no such reluctance for a photo. We encountered them in the countryside near Aleppo in Syria and stopped to ask directions. The old man pointed out the best route on our map with its helpful dual Arabic/Roman Alphabet lettering, and I could see him eyeing my digital SLR camera. I let him examine it- clearly he was an enthusiast, and it was only natural I ask if he wanted a photo. He smiled and carefully arranged the Kufiya on his head. Following suit, his wife also arranged her headware for the photo, only in her case it was a bag of groceries rather than a traditional Arab head dress!
Another example of living a hard life in a harsh environment was demonstrated by this extended family in Namibia. We’d been driving for hours on empty, dusty roads when we saw a dust cloud in the distance. We caught up the cloud after about 20 minutes and saw a Grandma and Grandpa with their grandchild and all their possessions on a cart pulled by a team of mules. They told us they were moving house – a distance of 40 miles, and having no access to a vehicle, were making the journey on their old cart. They were happy to stop for a rest and a chat before we both set off on our respective journeys again. We sped away in our VW Polo but they soon caught us up as we blew a tyre a couple of miles down the road!
This photo is guaranteed to elicit a chorus of ‘Aaaah’ from anyone I show it to. We were sat in a queue of traffic waiting for a landslide to be cleared in Guatemala and the enterprising locals in a nearby village saw the opportunity to sell some of the fruit from the orchards. Children were despatched with baskets to the line of waiting vehicles. Most approached their task with enthusiasm, but either this little chap was too shy to engage the passing strangers or he had something better to do that morning. His sad little face at the window, woollen hat covering his ears against a chill misty morning, takes me back immediately to that traffic jam in the Central American Highlands.
One of the problems with getting lost while driving abroad is that you never want to admit to yourself that you’re going the wrong way. Therefore you continue to forge ahead, on a rapidly deteriorating road, trying to convince yourself that you’re going the right way. This can go on for miles, until you finally come across the incontrovertible truth in the form of a dead end, a cliff edge or some other insurmountable blockage. On the day we became lost in the mountains of Bosnia, the truth finally dawned at the end of a long, bumpy, muddy track which ended in the front yard of a farm house, high in the hills, miles from anywhere. Not surprisingly, the family appeared, open mouthed and confused as to why two foreigners had just driven into their garden. We spread out our map, and they laughed, shook their heads and pointed back the way we’d just travelled and over the next mountain. They then invited us into their house where they fed and watered us before sending us on our way. I’d love to visit them again but has their house was on an unmapped road, I know I would never trace them again and they are destined to join the multiple strangers in my photo albums, who I met for only a fleeting moment.
It’s the random nature of these encounters when driving abroad that I enjoy. The circumstances which led these strangers and me to the same place in the world at the same time. Though our lives are very different, and our thoughts, opinions and concerns will never coincide, we shared a brief moment on a dusty road and recorded that with a photo. I have no way of knowing whether any of these people remember me, but I’d love to think that someone, somewhere will one day will have cause to Google ‘DriverAbroad.com’, and find a roadside picture of themself smiling back from the screen!