A Horse With No Name


Four short stories


The girl at the bar is beautiful. She's wearing a green dress, and high-heeled espadrilles. Her hair is knotted in a stylish side-tail, and her eyes are heavy with make-up. Her smooth skin shines under the bar lights. She's holding a cocktail glass, and fidgets with her hair. She looks no older than eighteen. Meanwhile the man next to her, with one hand on her thigh and another on a bottle of Heineken, has got to be sixty at least. He could be a mall Santa, with short cropped grey hair, bushy eyebrows, and a large beer gut. He's wearing cargo shorts and a striped collared shirt. They're speaking French, but I can't make out any of it. I look past my beer at Serge. "What do you make of that?", I ask. He glances over. "Oh, those. We call them 'mariées', brides. But she's not gonna marry that grandpa, oh no". Serge was born in Senegal. At six foot three, he stands out so much among the tiny locals that the children don't know who to stare at most: the white sunburnt guy with the blonde hair or the black muscled giant beside him. I would bet money that he is the tallest person in this country right now.

I raise my eyebrows. Serge continues. "She's a local as you probably guessed. He's a French retiree probably, or an expat on a long stay. He pays her to be his girlfriend for a few weeks. I don't know exactly, but it might be as much as a thousand dollars a month. Most of it gets passed to her family. It's a business, really. He pays for her company, her food, her dresses, and of course the hotel. She hangs around, smiles, makes conversation. And of course...". He raps on the table with a grin. I feign disgust, and walk over to the bar with our empty glasses. As I order two more, the man moves his hand from her thigh to her shoulder. He leans in, and she awkwardly kisses him on the cheek. I take my beers and walk back over to Serge. "So she's a whore?" I half ask, half tell him as I sit down. "You would think so", he says with a grin. "But that's not how her family sees it. It's just work. If she does this a few months a year her entire family can live off of it. She probably has a local boyfriend too. And he won't mind, as long as it makes them all rich". I shake my head in disbelief. As we walk back to our hotel a bit further down the street, I notice several similar couples strolling around. Beautiful made-up local girl, old white pensioner. Our hotel is called 'al Sham', but it really isn't. Serge explained to me that it's one of the finer places to stay in Tulear, Madagascar.


I'm sitting at a red light which, judging by the size of the square in front of me and the multitude of roads leading to it, may take awhile. The asphalt is so hot it burns through the soles of my riding boots. The friendly indicator in my dashboard tells me it's 34 degrees Celsius, but sitting here it feels like a hundred. As the line of cars behind me grows, a trickle of sweat runs down my back and I wiggle around trying to get rid of the sensation. I've been going for at least two hours, and I'm due a drink stop, but I'm also really close to my destination. Can I risk opening my bottle while sitting here? A long line of cars starts moving across the square from my left. I zip open my tank bag and reach for the bottle, awkwardly opening it with my gloves on. I take a long sip as the woman in the car to my right looks at me, her sunglasses so large that her smile is the only thing I can see of her face. As I put back the bottle, it bumps into my sunglasses, knocking them to the ground. Shit. I can't reach that far so I'll have to get off. I look ahead. Traffic is still moving from other directions.

Suddenly there is a man. He walks over from my left side, picks up the sunglasses, and hands them to me. I mutter a "grazi", and try to figure out where he came from. He walks back to the center divider several lanes to my left, a battered, soulles concrete barrier about a meter high, and sits down. I put my hand to my chest, gesturing 'thank you', and he smiles and nods. His shirt and pants are ragged, and he's wearing a fading baseball cap. I try to guess his age, but it's hard to tell. Forty, fifty? His dark skin is wrinkled, his arms skinny. On the barrier next to him is a coat hanger with items strung to it. I can see small packs of paper tissues, pens, cigarettes, and those little trees people hang from their rear-view mirror to make their car smell like pine trees, or peaches. I have no idea what the minimum wage is in Italy, but I can't convince myself that he would make more than it, doing this. I don't think he sold anything to the current red light crowd in any case. I'm tempted to get my wallet out to give him a few coins, but that would take a while, and we're due a green. Where does a man like this sleep? Does he have anything to drink, sitting in the murderous heat all day? Sweat pours down my neck and back, while I desperately try to ignore it. The light finally changes, and the riding wind turns my sweat-soaked suit into a glorious cold wrapper. "Fino circonvallenza", a sign says. "Milano Centro, 3km".


"Do you want to die?" Someone asks. We're sitting around a fire pit with a small group of people. A few German students, a French guy who looks about 40, two Israeli girls on their traditional post-conscription trip, and myself. I've just told them that I've been picking up hitchhikers in my rental car over the past weeks, but they're not having it. Too dangerous, in their mind. But they're all here by bus, comfortably snoozing away in the A/C while the country zips by, so what do they know of the road? Then again our hostel has walls, gates, and 24-hour security. I smile and sip my beer. South Africa is a massive country, and public transportation is virtually non-existent outside of the big cities. At every junction, every bridge over the motorway, there's a line of people. Sometimes just a handful, sometimes dozens. There are no hand gestures involved, because everyone knows the rules. It's first-come first-serve if the driver is black. Most cars that stop already have multiple occupants. But I'm white, and alone in my little rental Polo, so I make my own rules. Women and children only, and only two at a time.

I take off early the next morning. There's already a long queue at the intersection leading towards the highway. Groups of men carrying backpacks and duffels, mothers with numerous children and more luggage than I can stow. I slow down a little. Near the end of the line there's a woman in a dark, pin striped suit. She's carrying a handbag and a small briefcase. I point at her as deliberate as I can, while the car rolls on. About twenty meters past the last person I stop, leaving the car in gear. I peer through my left mirror as she walks towards me. If anyone else approaches with her I'll just drive off. I unlock the door just as she reaches for the handle, and tell her to get in the front which she does hesitantly. I'm not just giving a ride, I'm looking for conversation too.

She's 28, and works as a clerk at a large bank in Durban, about half an hour away. Despite her position, she cannot afford an apartment in town or even a car, so she lives with her family in a small village not far from the intersection. Two hours before her shift starts she walks to the highway to wait for a lift: it's the only way to be certain that she'll make it to work on time. As we approach the city I offer to bring her straight to the bank rather than just the turnoff. She refuses out of politeness, but relents when I tell her that I want to get coffee any way. She directs me to a modern office building sat between towering skyscrapers, with taxi's and hurried suits all around. There's a Starbucks just around the corner. She tries to hand me some coins before getting out of the car, but now it's my turn to refuse. Without thinking, I tell her to save it. But for what?


The motorway is full of Turkish trucks, with the occasional Bulgarian or Iranian plate, but the one I'm overtaking right now is much rarer, and as I merge back into the right lane I wave at the driver. I can't see his face in the dark of the cabin high above me, but the German flag draped across the dashboard is obvious. He honks and flashes his lights. I weave left to right and bob my head. Even truck drivers can appreciate some light-hearted fun, right? Earlier this morning I met an Austrian couple at a gas station, driving a huge 4x4 truck with bicycles lashed to the rear, also headed towards Iran. Just as I was about to take off again a Honda Goldwing pulled up towing a little trailer covered in stickers. I couldn't make anything of the plate so I approached the rider, who explained that he was from Saudi Arabia, touring Europe with his wife. The little lady on the back was drinking from a bottle in the cup holder beside her using a long straw. I motioned at her drink with a grin and a thumbs-up, and she laughed out loud. The road takes a long right-hand curve across a viaduct while the German trucker slowly disappears in my mirror. The landscape here around Adana in southern Turkey is gorgeous, the road winding between steep cliffs and picturesque valleys through endless tunnels, while pine-covered mountains loom in the distance. The hillside to my left is dotted with colourful little houses sat in a large grove of orange and olive trees. Satellite dishes and opaque plastic water tanks cover the roofs while mopeds and bicycles sit against the trees and buildings. Distant figures move between the fruit trees, stacking bags at regular intervals. A steep dirt road leads up to the commune from underneath the viaduct. Just then I notice him, on the other side of the barrier. On the shoulder of the road sits an old man in a deck chair, smoking cigarettes. To his side is a little table with bags and cups, and a large cardboard sign advertising his wares. It must've been a shock for these people when the motorway was built, the giant construction taking up much of the valley, ruining their view, and filling it with the constant drone of traffic. An optimist might say that it also gave them opportunities to sell their harvest to the world passing by. But the world moves quick, and at highway speeds it's difficult to read a handwritten cardboard sign.


As I pull up to the hotel a short man with a little black-and-white hat greets me enthusiastically, and gestures where he'd like me to park. Despite my best attempts to dissuade him he insists on carrying my bags to the elevator after I've checked in, and explains that I can use the wheelchair ramp to park the motorcycle right next to the entrance where the reception can keep an eye on it twenty-four-seven. Later, after I've showered the desert sand out of my hair I come across him taking note of the cars parked in front of the hotel in a little booklet. He's impressed with the motorcycle and brings me tea while I sit down to clean and grease the chain. His name is Bahad from Nepal, and he has been in Kuwait for five years now, working for the same hotel all that time. First as room service and cleaner, now as parking attendant and customer representative. The entire country runs on immigrant labour: native Kuwaiti people receive a handsome stipend from the government simply for existing, and as a result they tend not to do any labour. They own most of the businesses though, while people like Bahad do the actual work.

The following morning I head off to the Yamaha dealership for an oil change. The service representative initially refuses because my bike is a Triumph and not a Yamaha, but since I got the new filter with me and oil is, well, oil, I convince him to call his boss for me. Essa, a Kuwaiti, raises his eyebrows after seeing my license plate, then shakes my hand warmly and assures me that everything will be alright. His mechanics will take good care of my bike he promises, and asks if I would prefer tea, coffee, or an iced beverage while I wait. I watch as the Indian mechanics roll the bike into the shop, and after receiving a mug of fresh coffee from the garage's bartender I follow them inside. The fully blind shop cat is purring away in the corner, while several machines are being worked on. A Yamaha racer stands gutted on one of the lifts, its engine being revised on the table next to it. Two workers are busy installing floodlights onto a shiny new dune buggy. After the oil change the Indian crew checks the tire pressure and fluids, then gives the bike a thorough wash outside in the courtyard, while I stroll around the showroom admiring all the latest motorcycles, generators, and golf carts that Yamaha has to offer. When it's finally time to leave I ask Essa if they accept VISA cards. "No", he says. "There's nothing to pay, this is a gift".

That night I meet Bahad again in the lobby. It's quiet, and he has time to chat. I ask him about his life in Nepal and his work here in Kuwait city, and he indulges my naivety with extreme politeness. He works five 10-hour shifts a week for 140 Kuwaiti Dinar or about 500 dollars a month. The hotel provides lodging and clothes, and the employees are allowed to take home any leftovers from the daily breakfast buffet. He much prefers the clean hotel environment over construction work, even though the latter pays better. Every day before heading to his little apartment he fills a jerrycan with drinking water from the giant filter in the hotel basement, greatly reducing his living expenses. He sends home most of his salary and the tips he receives. He's not married, but the money provides for his widowed sister and her three children. Nearly 5000 dollars in the past year he explains, beaming with pride.