After the hostel breakfast, I stood on the tropical grass lawn smoking the first fag of the day and mulled things over. For the past three days I had been pedalling my electric power-assisted bike up and down Rwanda’s green hills. I was bruised from falls, physically and mentally tired, and prone, as I always am in Africa, to mood swings.
Today I was not depressed exactly but overwhelmed with pessimism. Now, after breakfast, for example, the conviction struck me that before my mother died I thought I knew everything, and since her death I’ve realised that I don’t know anything. Lying on the grass a few yards away was a football. I walked up and sliced it with the outside-edge of my foot in a satisfying curve into the fauvist shrubbery.
The rest of the peloton had risen early to visit the highland mountain gorillas. The Virunga national-park permit has recently doubled in price and the Slow Cyclist adventure travel company was quite reasonably unwilling to stump up $1,500 for the travel journalist appendage to go too, and I couldn’t afford to pay for one myself. They kindly offered golden monkeys or riverine birds as alternatives, but frankly a quiet day spent licking my wounds and recruiting my strength by a wood fire in a deserted hostel lounge felt to me like hitting the jackpot. In any case I’d witnessed and been quickly bored by the gorillas’ ruminative inanition years before, in Congo.
Alberto the hostel owner was not about yet. Typical of remoter backpackers’ hostels, his was frequented by local intellectuals. Last night four of them, plus Alberto, were ranged along the window seat debating passionately in Italian. What about I don’t know. My lower middle-class inferiority complex presumed an acutely intelligent cut and thrust in dispute of some arcane point of political philosophy.
In the lounge Simon was squatting to light the fire. If I could think of anything I would like to eat or drink throughout the day, I had only to mention it to Simon. Judging by the frivolous manner with which he served my solitary breakfast, I guessed that Simon’s initial suspicion that my intelligence quotient must be freakishly low had hardened overnight to certainty. I chose an armchair close to the hearth, rested my heels on the coffee table and with no obligation to pedal or even stand up much for the rest of the day, I opened my battered paperback at the turned-down page. Bliss. Outside, at the same moment, a tropical downpour commenced. Double bliss.
The fire had settled and Simon was in the kitchen making us a cup of coffee when a couple in late middle age and soaked to the skin entered the room and began peeling off their motorcycle gear. The woman then made for the fire and warmed her slight body beside it. After her slightness, I noticed her eyes, which were large and glittering, like those of an alcoholic or a seer, and, after that, a shy, unassuming nature. The man was larger and more robust-looking. We three exchanged greetings, then I moved seats away from the fire to let the chap warm himself also. I forget their names. Finally they took a seat each on either side of the hearth and we exchanged information about ourselves in English. (His was good, hers was as limited as my Spanish.)
They had just ridden in from Congo, said the man. They had been riding their motorbike through Africa: 33 countries in two years. Next: Uganda. He was 59 and she was 61. Last night they had camped on the rim of an active volcano. As we chatted I formed the impression of a close and self-contained but friendly and outward-looking unit. They were farmers from near Barcelona.
When the chap learned I was English he asked me about Brexit. Then I asked him about Catalexit, and it transpired that the three of us were separatists. His reasons for wanting to separate were mostly economic ones. But his chief disaffection was with the way the world was going in general. ‘The trouble with everything today in Europe and in the US,’ he said, ‘is that everybody thinks they know everything. To hear people talk, there’s nothing we don’t know. But it’s all superficial crisis chatter. It’s crazy.’
‘Well I don’t,’ I said. ‘You are now talking to someone who doesn’t know anything at all,’ I said. ‘Nothing. Test me.’
As he translated this statement into Spanish for his wife, the glittering eyes took me in carefully with a good deal of respect, if not unconditional love. Then the great Alberto appeared and hailed the steaming bikers. ‘What were you all talking about so passionately last night, Alberto?’ I said. He had to think about it. ‘Oh. A woman,’ he said, and he laughed at the recollection of their discussion.