The poet Robert Burns wrote: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us!’
I was cycling across the Thar desert in India, which, although it was epic, it wasn’t as epic as you may think. Two hundred and ten miles in three days, and, as you can imagine, as flat a road as I have ever cycled on. Hot, but because of the season, not Sahara Desert hot. Occasionally I had to get off because the road was blocked by sand, but that was hardly a surprise, and indeed I quite enjoyed that.
I have the usual photos of sand dunes, but I had to frame them very carefully because just out of shot were crowds of people and pile upon pile of rubbish. I was used to it by then, after a few months in India. No matter how isolated you thought you were, a head would always pop up to see what on earth you thought you were doing.
There was a long straight stretch of road and away in the distance I could see a group of people working on the road. In that state, Rajahstan, the women wore very bright clothing, and I could see one or two in the road gang. As I approached, it became clear everyone was intent on having some fun at my expense. They strung themselves across the road, forming a human barrier.
I’d been in the country long enough to know they were only having a laugh, but if I showed any signs of weakness, they would take advantage. I sped up. I got closer, and I could see their laughing faces as they held hands across the road. I sped up again.
One or two, maybe the women, thought the better of it and stepped off the road.
I went even faster.
By the time I was within about 50 metres of them, there was just one man left in the road. I could see his face and was not quite sure about this joke any more. The others, on the sidelines, were egging him on to stay there.
He did so.
I was in full sprint mode by now.
I got closer and closer.
Somebody’s nerve was going to give.
Up out of the saddle and sprinting as fast as I could, it wasn’t going to be me. He realised this, at the last moment, and edged towards the side of the road.
I could easily pass on the other side. But I didn’t.
Just as he moved aside, I veered towards him, as if not only did I not mind crashing into him, I actually wanted to do it. When he saw that, he dived headlong off the road, into the ditch.
His mates fell about the place laughing, and waved for me to stop and enjoy the joke for a moment.
Later that day, I reached the end of the journey, the city of Jaisalmer. About 10 miles short of the town, I ran out of water. This wasn’t a big problem, especially as I could see the city in in the distance across the desert.
I rolled into Jaisalmer, feeling a little thirsty, but no more. I stopped at the first bar I came to on the edge of town and had a bottle of Coke. It was good, so I had another. That was it. As far as I was concerned, end of the story. I continued into the town, found a hotel and congratulated myself on a well-executed and memorable ride across a desert. I’d never done that before and have not done it since.
Later that evening I was sitting in a restaurant. I saw an English couple on a neighbouring table pointing to me and whispering.
‘There he is,’ said the woman. ‘That’s him.’
Eventually, they came over to talk to me.
The man said: “We had never seen anything like it in our lives. We could see this figure slowly approaching out of the desert. It was like something out of Lawrence of Arabia. He got closer and closer, and we could see he was on a bike. We thought this is madness. He hasn’t even got a hat on.
‘He finally arrived, almost fell off the bike and staggered into the bar and demanded a drink. He knocked it back in one, as if he hadn’t drunk for days, then had another. Then he staggered back to his bike, got on it, and without a word, continued. We’d never seen anything like it.’
I tried to explain what had really happened, at least from my perspective, but they weren’t having any of it. I was a nutter who’d just cycling across a desert without a hat and water and that was the end of it.
Oh for that power to see ourselves as others see us.