I was soaked to the skin anyway, so I ploughed straight through the flood puddles. However, the strange lack of signage concerned me a little as it was late afternoon and I didn’t want to miss the turnoff, if there was one. I pulled up alongside a bearded young man on a scooter.
‘Scuse me, sir,’ I said, ‘where is Sector 22?’
‘This way,’ he said. ‘You can go on.’
I came to a flooded turn-off. The left side of the road was under half a metre of water. The lights were out and there was no sign. I went straight on. At the next set of unsignposted lights, I asked another bearded man on a scooter where Sector 22 was. He gestured vaguely with his head. ‘Straight?’ I said and pointed. He nodded. ‘Or left?’ and I pointed. He nodded again. Then he said, ‘Left.’ So I turned left, skirting the small lake on the road. I rumbled through a couple of unsigned roundabouts. The traffic thinned. I had come to a residential area with dirty old low-rise concrete apartments, cracked and potted footpaths, and overgrown vegetation. Which sector I was in remained a mystery. There were no people to ask. Yes, there was one: a young man with glasses – the best kind. I stopped and asked him where Sector 22 was. Following his directions into more Chernobyl-esque apartments, I stopped and asked an older man, out in the street with his wife, where Sector 22 was. He gave me such confident, assertive directions – while the woman stared at me – that I was moved to shake his hand. The shake was limp. ‘Go straight,’ he’d said, ‘then left, right, straight, straight, left.’ But after two roundabouts, I came to a T-intersection – I couldn’t go straight, straight. Beyond the soaking trees and shrubs bordering the road there was no sign of a city rising from the plain.
I trawled the puddled streets until I saw a young man. He was surprised when I pulled up next to him and raised my visor.
‘Excuse me, sir – Sector 22?’
I asked a man, who was pleased to see me, where Sector 22 was. He pointed straight ahead. After several roundabouts, I U-turned to catch a pedestrian on the other side of the road.
‘Excuse me, sir – Sector 22?’
I caught a woman at the bottom of her drive. She was startled and stepped back.
‘Excuse me, madam. I’m looking for Sector 22.’
She took a breath. ‘What?’ She stepped closer.
‘Sector 22. Where is it?’
She realised I was asking for directions. ‘This,’ she said, pointing straight. ‘Right. No. Left. Left.’
I mimed her directions with my hand, but it was hopeless, I sensed that my time with her was rapidly running out. She nodded emphatically in agreement with my pantomime as she turned away.
I saw a person on the other side of the road. I cut a wake straight for him.
‘Excuse me, sir – Sector 22?’
‘Sorry. No English.’
I received a bemused smile from a rickshaw man. Jesus, was I asking for turnips? A tidy-looking man on a bicycle joined us in the puddle. His directions led me through several roundabouts to a small university or polytechnic. Higher education, I was hopeful. I stopped a couple of students carrying books as they came out through the gate. Unusually, the man remained silent while the young woman, in expensive-looking black-framed glasses, did the talking. I was a long way from Sector 22, she told me. I should go straight, straight, left, right, right. And then ask someone. Keep asking people, she told me. I believed in her directions. Following them, I came to a road with some traffic on it – a main road. I saw an overpass and a white dome. I followed the flow of traffic to a roundabout. I circled it, looking for signage, and then picked out a young man in glasses for directions. I was like Pol Pot, looking for people with glasses. It transpired that I had blundered into Section 21. Straight, straight, left, was all that was needed. I followed the directions; there were shops, three-storey buildings, traffic lights, trucks.
‘Excuse me, sir. Where is sector 22?’
‘This.’ He pointed at the ground.
‘Where is a hotel; guesthouse; place to sleep?’
I rested my helmeted head on my hands, and closed my eyes.
‘Sector 17,’ he said.
I sought a second opinion. A rickshaw driver said, ‘Yes.’
On a corner stood a grand movie theatre, a stone building with a wide and carpeted flight of steps leading into it. A group of four foreigners stood at the bottom of the steps. I parked and walked over to them. Water slooshed in my boots, and my wet trousers clung tightly to my legs. No, they didn’t know where the hotels in Sector 22 were, and they didn’t know if this was sector 22 because they were only tourists. Please leave us alone, said their faces.
Across the road from the theatre was a taxi stand. I spoke to a taxi-driver. I didn’t speak his language. He led me by the arm into a nearby tent in a car park where a chubby young man with a beard lay on his back on a stretcher, talking on a cell phone. The chubby controller. He stood up when I entered. He was tall as well. He knew where the hotels in Sector 22 were, but the only available taxi-driver didn’t. He stepped out of the tent and pointed back down the road. ‘Go straight, then left, then left again,’ he told me.
‘I’ve been going in circles for forty minutes,’ I said. ‘I’ve asked ten people for directions.’
At that moment my helmet fell off my idling bike and bounced on the pavement. It punctuated my sentence perfectly.
‘I’ll come and show you where it is,’ he said, nodding towards my bike.
‘There’s no room,’ I said, ‘there’s a pack on the back.’
Within two minutes I was following his car left, right, left, ignoring several perfectly feasible lefts and rights. He indicated, stopped the little hatchback and got out. ‘There it is,’ he said, and grinned. I saw the hotel sign, almost hidden in an anonymous block of shops. I shook his hand. ‘Thanks, man,’ I said, ‘you saved me.’
Humans must eat, must drag their weary carcasses into clothes and away from sport on TV watched from a prone position on a comfortable bed. After walking 300 metres and not seeing a shop with water or cigarettes, I found a restaurant with fake pillars outside and went in. Ten tables were reflected in a mirrored wall. I sat down and watched the waiter/owner, a small, middle-aged man, criticising a teenager about something. Was it his son or an ex-employee? He was speaking quietly and nastily. It appeared as if some thought had gone into the speech, each word seemed carefully considered, even designed to surprise. The young man lifted his hands. He turned to me and widened his eyes in mute appeal, raised his hands again, then walked out. The owner/waiter took my order for mutton fried rice with evident distaste as his was a chicken restaurant; and without a kitchen I learned when he popped outside with my order. But he prepared my lemon soda himself. To cut the lemon, he pulled a knife from a scabbard under the table nearest the door. After dissecting the lemon he glanced furtively round, like a gambler or assassin, then slid the knife back into its secret place. He poured the drink, squeezed the lemon into it, and then lifted a lemon pip out of it with a teaspoon. The teenager came back in. The old waiter criticised him as meticulously as before. The teenager left.
A dispute about the bill arose at the other patronised table. The waiter hovered over the young couple and bickered with them. He accompanied them out the door then returned with my mutton. I requested a knife from the old killer. He brought me a spoon. ‘Knife,’ I said, and sawed the air with my finger. ‘No knife,’ he said. OK I picked a big piece of tender mutton off the top of the rice and ate it with my fingers. It was good, but I quickly discovered that there was no more of it. I called him back and stirred the big bowl of rice with my spoon. ‘Where’s the mutton?’ I asked. His teeth showed and he softened his voice: ‘Only one piece, sir.’ OK It had been a good piece. I shovelled down some rice to fill my stomach, then got the bill. He had to walk outside with me and show the bill to the cook at the street-stall section of the chicken restaurant next door who took my damp money and gave me my change. ‘Bye,’ said the old waiter, with a grimace.
I was asleep when the hotel phone rang. ‘Please, sir, you must move your bike.’
‘There is no watchman here. You must move it to – Hotel. The boy will show you.’
I got dressed, went to reception, and then followed a guy in his late twenties downstairs. The other hotel was twenty metres away – pushing distance on the dark and deserted footpath. I parked my bike next to two others.
‘No. On centre stand,’ said the ‘boy’.
‘Closer.’ The other bikes were on their centre stands, sitting close together. He didn’t like my side stand because the bike didn’t sit up straight. There was nothing else on the footpath, no space issue, so I told him to do it. My centre stand was short and tricky to set, particularly when wearing flip-flops as we both were. It pleased me that he had real difficulty doing it, pleased me for a couple of back straining, hernia-inducing seconds, anyway. I pulled the bike back for him and it sat in its neat, wee row. I stalked back to the hotel keeping an eye out for cigarettes and water. There weren’t any, but they had water at reception – litres of it. I relaxed a little. I asked the clerk for a map to get out of the city. He smiled. I didn’t need a map, it was simple – left, straight, straight, then veer left – easy, sir.
He’d given me water. I believed him.