Dirt Tracks 3: The loneliest place on Earth
"A burden shared is a burden halved" goes the old saying. Researchers at the Marshall Business School in California have even put this to the test [i] They could have just joined me in the desert.
For a week, Pete and I shared each other’s burdens. Sometimes literally when joint items of kit like the tent were split between our backpacks, other times emotionally, as we discussed the trials and challenges of life. We laughed at memories from our time in Bristol, compared our photos of desert landscapes and spent hours endlessly tweaking our rather bland pasta dinner to make it marginally tastier with herbs and spices and Middle-Eastern cheeses we picked up in desert towns en route.
Pete works for the Physics Department at Bristol Uni and he couldn’t take a long holiday in the middle of the year, so after a week of adventures, he set off one bright Tuesday morning for the main desert road to catch a bus north to the airport, leaving me to fend for myself.
This was the moment I had been dreading. Like many Brits, I’m not a complete extrovert and I enjoy a bit of time to myself to think and reflect. But 180 miles is a long way to walk alone.
I had seen this coming on the horizon a long way off. On one occasion, during the months of planning before this trip, Caroline, one of my friends from City Church Bristol, had a message for me. While she'd been praying, a picture of me had appeared in her mind's eye, dressed as an explorer, trekking through the desert, and she felt that God was calling me to be brave, for some reason.
She tentatively asked if that meant anything to me or whether I was going through a 'desert stage' in life maybe? I explained that it wasn't so much a metaphor, but that I really was going to be trekking through an actual desert and I would indeed need to dig deep and find some courage.
She had known nothing of my trip at the time, but on the morning that Pete left, that timely message came back to me.
This is where the rubber hit the road... the 180-mile road to my half-way point in Jerusalem.
I vividly remember the first night I spent alone in the wilderness. I had hiked the trail out of the Jordan valley and into the Negev mountains to the west where the air was cooler and the views breathtaking. I pitched up as it was getting dark in a small ravine at the top of a ridge, thinking I would get phone signal higher up to phone home.
I was wrong.
Even when I was alone, I could usually still call my family. Signal out here became a life-line from loneliness. Israel is obsessively well-connected and while finding water in the desert is a massive challenge, 4g is easy to come by.
But not this night.
I put the tent up in a hurry. It was harder pitching it alone and rocks which had sat there for millions of years were not going to surrender to a set of flimsy tent pegs without a fight.
When the sun set over Egypt, it seemed that night pounced out of the shadows in an instant.
There are no street lights up here. The ravine was pitch dark and the silence was tangible. It’s rare to find complete silence these days, especially compared to my life back home. There was not a whisper of life. No gentle hum of traffic, nobody laughing downstairs, no music coming from a car outside or a party in the neighbourhood.
Just dark, eerie silence.
I remember thinking that this must be the loneliest place on Earth.
Three weeks suddenly felt like a very long time.
It was six o’clock. Who goes to bed at six o’clock?
What was I going to do in these dark hours? Would I be able to sleep through the long and lonely watches of the night?
As I lay down in my tent and fired up the gas stove by the open door, probably a little too close to the canvas, my thoughts turned to the sixty-five million refugees across the world in similarly isolated situations. But infinitely worse than mine.
There are thousands of people in the desert between Eritrea and Ethiopia, unable to return for fear of death, but with nowhere else to go. There are Iraqis, Syrians and Palestinians, trapped in refugee camps in surrounding nations. There are Afghan families, driven from their towns, struggling to survive the journey through the bitter cold of the Hindu Kush on the roof of the world.
The UNHCR estimates that there are ten million ‘stateless’ people in the world today, folks who apparently belong nowhere [ii]. About a third of them are children. Many are alone. Often, through no fault of their own, people are separated from loved ones and left to continue their journey without family or friends to share the burden. It's a vulnerable situation to be in.
For people, tricked and trafficked into illegal labour camps, this is especially harsh. For young girls forced into the underground sex trade and visited by up to thirty men a day, the deep loneliness of their situation is a tragic irony. A night alone in the desert can never compare to that level of isolated exploitation.
That really is the loneliest place on Earth.
As the moon rose high into the black sky and my eyes started to feel heavy, I rejoiced for those individuals who have given their life to fighting these evils. There is hope even in the darkest of places. While many of us can feel overwhelmed by human crises like these, there are some people who will not give in to the luxury of despair, those who choose to fight back.
The organisation I chose to support on this expedition, A21, have tracked down thousands of trafficked people. There are guilty traffickers behind bars right now, thanks to A21’s legal teams, and there are girls in safe houses of sanctuary and redemption, who can dare to dream again for their future.
But there are millions more who need rescuing. Millions more sons and daughters with gifts and talents, hopes and dreams, equally deserving of a home like mine. If my lonely trek does nothing but raise money and awareness for those who need it far more than me, then I will have no regrets.
Quite the opposite.
You can sponsor this journey and donate to A21 here.
Up next… Dirt Tracks 4: The Wolf at the Door
[i] Townsend S et al (2013) Are you feeling what I’m feeling? Emotional Similarity buffers stress. Social Psychological and Personal Science. Vol 5, Issue 5. Available here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1948550613511499
[ii] UNHCR (2018). Available here: http://www.unhcr.org/statelessness-around-the-world.html