The snake was barely ten feet from her dusty, sandalled feet. The sounds of the marketplace faded as Simiyu, her tall, ebony-skinned guide gestured to her with his forefinger to stop, be silent, don’t breathe.
The creature reared up, its jaws wide and pink and monstrous; fangs as sharp as needles. Simiyu’s robe swirled; he kicked up sprays of fine dust as he strode towards the snake. Thrusting his stick at the reptile’s head, he trapped it in the cleft. One of the bearers swept a large basket from the stall beside him. With deft movements the snake was scooped up and tossed into the basket and the lid slammed down. It all happened so quickly, in a whirling blur of robes, limbs moving with the grace of ballerinas and the swiftness and expertise of magicians.
She smiled her thanks, breathing deeply, heaving the hot dry air into her lungs. The clamour of the marketplace cranked back up to full volume, even more vibrant and alive than before, the sounds and smells and colours accentuated by the temporary sensory paralysis of terror.
Her shirt clinging to her back and dark circles of sweat under her arms, she wondered aloud why she put herself through these challenges, these adventures. Why she constantly stepped outside her comfort zone.
In the shower, Alice’s mind wanders from the snake, the dust and the relentless heat of Morocco to a sparkling waterfall in a land of majestic mountains and crystal clear rivers. She turns the temperature control to cold and the spray head to its harshest setting to try to replicate that experience. Squealing and gasping, she splashes the water around, swooshing it down her body, relishing its invigorating sting.
The waterfall was a very welcome sight after trekking for hours through the humid terrain between the towering Andes Mountains and lush Amazon rainforest. She preferred far-reaching views to the claustrophobic intimacy of the forest, but soon they would reach the ancient ruined temple, only recently discovered thanks to new, ground-breaking technology. That is, if they didn’t get lost.
‘Not even the sun to guide us,’ she mused, squinting up through the thick canopy overhead.
‘Must be around noon, judging by the angle of the…aargh!’ she cried out as she fell full-length to the ground.
Her ankle twisted under her and she winced in agony. Her guide, Hernando, ran back to where she lay. Grabbing the straps of her ruck-sack he hauled her upright, ignoring her yelps of pain.
‘You should watch where you’re going,’ he told her brusquely.
She was blushing, hair dishevelled, eyes smarting. She laughed good-naturedly and agreed that she was indeed an idiot but there was no harm done, no bones broken, only her pride was bruised. Anxious not to delay their journey she insisted she was fine and fell into step, limping and grimacing, behind her taciturn companion. To her relief and delight they at last broke through a thicket of undergrowth to find the ground suddenly falling away and, a few hundred yards ahead, the waterfall, its raging torrents an assault on the ears after the forest’s muffled soundtrack. All that remained for that day was to scramble down through the trees to where they were to camp for the night beside the river and, she hoped, a swim in its revitalising waters.
Stepping out of the shower, Alice is careful to put her weight onto her left foot first, her right ankle still tender from her fall. Gently towelling herself dry she remembers the raw pain of that day and knows she should be grateful that it has at last subsided to a dull ache. She dresses slowly and deliberately, choosing a midnight-blue kaftan and a pair of dangling earrings bought at a church fete but looking just like a trinket from an Egyptian bazaar.
The traders in the souq at Luxor were beguiled by her long blonde hair and intensely blue eyes.
‘Where you from, pretty lady?’ asked a giant of a man in a stained khaki gallibaya. His eyes, like raisins in pomegranate juice, appraised her greedily.
‘United Kingdom…Bath,’ she answered him.
‘Near to Honiton? My cousin lives in Honiton.’ he proclaimed, arms outstretched, ready to welcome her into his family.
‘Really? That’s amazing!’
‘And if you believe that…’ Waleed, her Egyptian guide, snorted. ‘The last person he asked will have said they came from Honiton. Trust me, give him half an hour and his cousin will be living in Bath.’
‘You want new husband, beautiful lady?’ her suitor persisted.
‘Come on!’ Waleed urged, keeping a tight hold on her arm.
They continued to push and shove their way through the souq, exchanging jokes and banter with the grinning stall holders.
Glad to be back in her cool, peaceful hotel room, she had one last task before she could retire, exhausted, to bed. Sipping refreshing mint tea, she listened for a moment to the haunting call to prayer drifting across the Nile before summing up what she had seen and experienced that day.
‘There is a timelessness here,’ she said. ‘The river with its graceful feluccas; the souq, forever colourful and chaotic; the people, hard-working and hospitable. It is a truly beautiful country.’
Alice peers down into her cup at two soggy mint leaves which have escaped the tea strainer. Slipping on her reading glasses, she studies the TV Guide. University Challenge will start in fifteen minutes; just time to make a fresh pot of tea and choose a biscuit from the fancy selection she won in the U3A raffle.
Hobbling through to her tidy little kitchenette she refills the kettle. Perhaps she will give the mint tea a miss this time; it’s very nice, but you can’t beat a proper brew, perfect with the quintessentially British University Challenge. She smiles; she’s had quite enough mint tea and travel documentaries for one day.