Ahead of the launch of my new book, Yallah! The Sahara Journal I thought I would share the opening chapter with you. The book will be available on Amazon and Kindle from 13 October 2014, marking a year to the day that I returned from the desert.
There were sixteen of us in all who traversed a hundred kilometres of the desert together. Sixteen brave souls who didn’t quite know what they were letting themselves in for but had the belief within that it was something they had to be a part of, something they could not bear to see go on without them. It’s a condition commonly referred to in today’s society as FOMO or ‘fear of missing out’ – one of several bouts of shorthand thrown between us as we took on the greatest challenge of our lives (so far).
But I’m getting ahead of myself, for you see a great adventure doesn’t begin in the midst of the adventure itself, it begins on a sunny garden patio in Essex over a year before.
‘But why are you doing this to me, Martin?’ my mother asked, her fork balanced against the perfect manicure of her left hand somewhere between the plate and her mouth. I adjusted my glasses and tried to shield my eyes from the sun, which seemed to be shining purely on me.
‘This isn’t about you, Mum’ I said. ‘I’m not doing it to spite you; it’s just something I want to do. I get tired of it all sometimes, and I want to do something different.’
You might have thought I was talking about some horrific act, as though I had told her I was going to start murdering neighbourhood dogs or become a drug-addled rent boy. I thought for a moment about my words, and chose them carefully, because I knew I was on thin ice.
‘I’m just always the safe one, you know. My brothers go off and do stupid things all the time, and they get away with it or they make it through more or less unscathed’.
I’m the eldest of three brothers you see, the sensible one.
‘One of your brothers isn’t allowed into the United States and the other has a metal plate in his shoulder, what kind of aspiration is that?’ she asked.
I’ll explain it to you. You might understand a little better. My name is Martin Salinger. I’ve always been the tidy, smart, dependable one, and I love that, I really do. I like the fact extended family have got to a point where they recognise me as an adult, realise that I can hold my own and discuss family politics or international politics and for the most part I get it, or I can at least nod in a way that implies that I get it. I have the general look and feel of being an adult now, I’ve got that covered.
The problem is very much a “the grass is always greener” situation. I am jealous of the lack of control my brothers have. I spent a long time in counselling understanding the way I process things and where I collect my ideas from, so I have a pop culture understanding of my psyche. I knew I wanted to try something to prove I could do it, to show people that I am not as predictable as they may have thought. I wanted to do something dangerous. I wanted to have an adventure. I wanted to disappear off into the void like the heroes of mine I read about.
Jack Kerouac went off into the Californian mountains to work as a ranger, keeping an eye out for forest fires. As a result he wrote Lonesome Traveller.
Hunter Thompson bought himself a ranch where he would stand alone night after night, firing rounds off into the mountains. He wrote constantly.
David Bowie buried Ziggy Stardust in the anonymous Nevada Desert and went on to become the ‘Thin White Duke’.
I had decided I needed me some solitude.
Suddenly, as if I had created it within my mental temple, an email popped up, propelling me forward from the daydream state I tended to spend my 9 to 5 in and my foot pushed hard on the accelerator. A group of graduates were putting together a trek across the Sahara. They were asking for those interested to click a button within the message to be invited to a conference call where more details would be covered off. It featured just the kind of controlled experimentation I craved.
Without thinking, or discussing it, I clicked the link, and then guiltily closed the window on my computer. Maybe nobody would find out about this, I considered.
Thinking about that moment now I’m reminded of when I first bought my cherry red Epiphone Dot, which I lovingly named Dot. I try to give girls’ names to as many of my possessions as possible. I’m writing my story on Hyacinth. I call and text on Lucille.
When I bought that guitar I was filled with a deep sense of shame. I don’t know why. That’s just how I deal with spending money, which may be more to do with my heritage than I truly care to think about. I was so worried about it that for three weeks Dot remained in the musty old clap trap that is the underneath of my double bed.
I have since got over whatever seemed to have taken control of me and have written a whole musical about the life of a prominent Communist dictator upon her pretty frets.
That’s how best to describe how I felt as I closed the email window, as if I had done something wrong. A point possibly explained by my mother’s reluctance to accept that I was going to do it. That, of course, came later.
At lunchtime on that same day I sat with my harem and discussed the email. There was no urgency in responding to the initial correspondence, they were just looking to gauge interest across the business. I refer to sitting “with my harem” as I happen to have spent my lunch hours in the working world with a series of brilliant women. Both of those I sat with on that particular day have since broken on through to the other side, two girls I will call Annie and Leanne.
I describe them as brilliant women because they are, and not just because all women are brilliant when you really think about it but because they’re very endearing characters, despite how often I may scoff at their misunderstanding of the universe, rock ‘n’ roll or foreign affairs.
Annie is from Chingford, and is the kind of girl who can make you look like an absolute fool. She takes absolutely everything I say on-board, and will later quite brilliantly turn it against me and make me feel like an utter twat. She has a wanderlust a mile wide, a fondness for Harry Potter and she snorts when you really make her laugh.
Leanne is from Basildon, but insists that it’s the nice bit of Basildon. I’m sure there must be one. She’s the kind of girl you’d want as a little sister. She’s very girly and pretty and has a taste in music that makes you want to bang your clenched fist on the wall and tell her to shut up. That’s what I imagine having a sister to be like anyway. I was never unfortunate enough to be awarded one. She’s very resourceful, fashionable and affectionately naïve about things.
We spent that lunch hour discussing the Sahara Trek. By the end of the week we had all been sent an email to confirm our attendance on the mystical conference call.
When we got into work on the morning of the call I was a little too excited. This may have been due to the Grande Mocha I had bought on the way in. It doesn’t take a lot to send me spiralling off into a jabbering nosedive. Caffeine is one of the few acceptable drugs of the twenty-first century.
That’s a different matter altogether though.
When it came time for the call I was amazed at the details. It was better than I could have imagined. We were to spend nine days in total, travelling and trekking from Gatwick to Marrakech, out to the desert and then back again. We were going to be eating local produce and depending on our wits to protect us and the whole thing only cost £1,100. Of course I appreciate this is a lot of money but it came with an important point. We were funding the trek ourselves so all the fundraising we did for the trek’s chosen charity (The Prince’s Trust for UK participants and Water Aid for overseas participants) would go to the charity. This was important to me as I had recently attended an event which I won’t name, by a charity I won’t name either, where the first £250.00 of the funds raised per person was used to take part in the event itself.
That doesn’t seem fair to me. When I give anything to charity, which I try to do as often as I can – or possibly more often than I should – I want to know the money is doing some good, and not paying for someone to get their cheeky jollies in the name of furthering their own Mother Theresa complex. Over the course of a year we paid off the outstanding balance to match deposits and payments laid down by the various parties involved in orchestrating such an event. The intention for the trek was for 100 people to participate as trekkers, in addition to guides, cooks, camel handlers, drivers and anyone else it would take to carry out such a feat.
We were told that on the Wednesday of that week an email would be sent to everyone who had taken part in the conference call. This would be sent at exactly 12pm. Within the email was a button which when clicked would link through to an email account. Places would be allocated on a first come, first serve basis via this system. On the Wednesday in question I sat refreshing my emails every other second for the twenty minutes leading up to 12pm.
As soon as the email landed in my inbox I shouted over to Annie and Leanne who sat a row of desks away from me.
‘We know’ they both managed to shout back.
I clicked the link and waited. Nothing happened. I worried I hadn’t clicked it hard enough. Had the shadow beneath the highlighted icon changed colour? I didn’t want to click again in case it meant I was dropped further down the list. I left it. Having since spoken to Kai and Lucy, who are the brave individuals that decided to organise such an incredible event, I have found out some more details of what transpired on that day. Over three hundred people clicked that button, at near enough exactly the same time I did. Kai told me he wasn’t at work on the day but had email notifications activated on his Blackberry. Each time he received an email it would vibrate for about a second. He was driving as the clock hit 12. His phone buzzed for twenty minutes non-stop in its holder on the dashboard of his car.
The following week I found out I hadn’t got a job I had applied for. I also received an inordinate number of rejected manuscripts back for my first novel which I had sent off to publishers in the vain hope that a hundred thousand words on me vomiting in the bushes outside a Student Union would be the surprise hit of the season.
I also found out I had been unsuccessful in gaining a place on the trek. I felt thoroughly deflated. Annie had also failed to get a place. Meanwhile Leanne, who I have a sneaking suspicion may have been the person who anonymously asked during the conference call via email whether there would be access to electricity on the trek so she could use a hairdryer and straighteners, had got a place. I was happy for her but also seething. She said she wouldn’t go if neither Annie nor I were going. I told her not to be ridiculous, there was still a chance further places would be offered on a clearings basis. If those who had been awarded places changed their minds then we could be bumped up into the accepted pile. She wasn’t having any of it and declined her place.
The following day I received an email from Kai telling me I had got a place. I sat staring at the email for five minutes before I could do anything. I was elated.
‘Annie, check your emails!’ I called over.
‘Nothing,’ she replied, ‘why?’
‘I’m going to the Sahara.’
Her face dropped slightly and briefly. She tried to hide it again but I caught sight of the frown and my mood shifted with it. We had all signed up together and while Leanne had her reasons for not really wanting to go I knew it was exactly the kind of adventure Annie could really get behind. She had previously travelled to South East Asia and was full of incredible stories. She very recently left me to go travelling around the world for a year.
‘I’ll email them’ I said.
I sent Kai a message asking if he could confirm if there was any chance Annie would get a place. Given what I now know of the application process and how difficult it was for them to pick and choose people I am amazed he managed to respond without laughing within the body of the message. He said he would do his best but of course there were no promises. Later that day I was copied in on the message he sent to Annie where he offered her a place. She of course accepted. We talked about it every day for a year.
‘One of your brothers isn’t allowed into the United States and the other has a metal plate in his shoulder, what kind of aspiration is that?’
‘I don’t really want to do either of those things, Mum. I just worry that I haven’t seen enough of the world, that I don’t really understand anything. There are all of these things going on that I am yet to experience. I’d like to see more of it while I can.’
‘How much is all this costing you then?’
‘Well I have to raise £500 for charity.’
‘And I suppose you’ll want sponsoring.’
‘Of course I’ll bloody sponsor you, but promise me you’ll be sensible.’
‘Look who you’re talking to’ I said.