The day started off as you might have expected. Another ten-hour day haphazardly teaching my Libyan students the fundamentals of the English language. I had been officially teaching for a couple of weeks by then and I had got used to the routine, I would teach my first class at 10am and then repeat that same two-hour lesson four times in a row with varying levels of enthusiasm. Sometimes I would have a class of three, on other occasions I would be teaching thirty or forty students all in the same classroom. Attendance very much depended on the temperature, the availability of fuel and whether or not the roads into Tripoli were blockaded by militia.
As it was Wednesday, it was the end of my working week (As Friday is the Islamic holy day, my ‘weekend’ would always begin on Thursday). By 6pm I had watched the first hour of Wreck it Ralph four times in eight hours without ever getting to see the second half of the film. In between screenings, I pranced around pretending to be more of an authority than I actually was and conducted the odd vocab test. I found out that day that an alarming percentage of my pupils could not, or would not, spell ‘count’ correctly.
It was all very typical.
Then, idly scrolling through my emails as Ralph got up to his usual destructive shenanigans on screen, I spied an email from my school. It was entitled ‘…emulsion gunrifle colleagues. Can be fun!’. There was no other text.
After an understandably cautious reply, I was able to deduce that there was a paintball event on that Friday and that I was invited. Getting shot at to relax from, well, being shot at, struck me as a fairly odd idea. Still, the option was there and it was as good an excuse as any to shoot my new boss in the face. Who was I to say no?
As I was pondering just how close I could get to my boss’ face and still claim it was an accident, a cry went up and I saw Ralph conducting a weird sort of BeeGee’s jig on the old cathrode ray tube TV. The (copied) DVDs in the school were well-used and it was not uncommon for them to freeze every now and again. I dreamily strolled over to the DVD player and, still lost in my paint-splattered reveries, quickly came to after it became apparent my tummy was being tickled by a middle-aged Arabian man.
The DVD player – containing the juddering disc – was about seven and a half feet off the floor which meant I had to stretch over a few pupils’ heads to reach it. As I did so, I could not help but display a tantalising band of doughy-white, Welsh flesh. Evidently overcome with powerful emotion, the 45-year-old Arabian man had quickly decided that the only course of action available to him was to reach under my untucked shirt and gently caress me, startling me, delighting him and bemusing everybody else. I hastily fixed the DVD and scuttled back to the safety of my desk.
Anyway, after successfully negotiating the rest of the day tickle-free, it was time to go home. One of my students had recommended a little Mexican takeaway quite close to my flat so I asked my driver Abdul to drop me there so I could pick up a takeaway. I had seen the place whilst scooting around the city and it was no further than five minutes away through streets I was relatively familiar with.
After we dropped my housemate off at our apartment complex, Abdul surprised me by driving off in a new and unexpected direction.
‘Must be a shortcut’, I thought, distracted by what sort of burrito Africa might serve up and whether I would be allowed to eat it in the car.
A good few minutes later – after several lawless junctions and a degree of violent swerving – we arrived at a dilapidated shed with a donkey skull outside. On top of the grinning equine cranium sat an sympathetically battered sombrero which had slipped and caught at a jaunty angle. A tattered Mexican flag fluttered half-heartedly in the warm evening breeze next to it.
Abdul, my driver, smiled encouragingly.
I got out of the car. I am not sure why.
‘I’ll only be a minute Abdul’
He beamed and knocked on his indicator, ‘Ok, see you Mr Alex!’.
‘Oh, he’s leaving me here’, I mused.
A thoughtful pause.
‘Shit, he’s leaving me here!’
‘Abdul!’, I flung myself at the side of his car and grabbed hold of the door handle, ‘where are you going?’
‘Pick teacher up, you walk back ok?’, he casually flung a hand in the direction we had just come from.
On no account could I let him leave without me. It was dark, I had no idea where I was and there was a dead rat on the floor next to a half-nibbled taco.
On absolutely no account could Abdul leave.
‘Yeah, no problem, see you around man’, I heard myself confidently say despite my inner howls of anguish.
Abdul smiled again and pulled out directly in front of a four-tonne truck swaying under a massive load of concrete breezeblocks. I watched Abdul’s enthusiastic hand waving all the way down the street, accompanied by a long meaningful honk from the lorry driver.
At least I think Abdul was waving.
Anyway, lost and afraid, a malevolent – yet festive – donkey head beckoned me forward. I crept in to the Mexican shack.
The proprietor was almost as surprised as I was to see me in his restaurant. He handed me an Arabic menu and I pointed politely at something costing 7 dinar. I was hoping it would be some sort of wrap but given my luck with other purchases, it could just as easily have been a novelty, Mexico-inspired teatowel.
I inanely sat and stared about me for a while as you do whilst you are waiting for your food in a takeaway. A few minutes later, I was handed a pizza box with ‘bon appetit’ emblazoned across it. It certainly did not feel like a burrito, a little too weighty, but I decided to wait until I got home to investigate my Mexican fiesta and properly start my weekend. Who knows I thought, I might need the box for warmth and shelter should I get hopelessly lost.
I took a hesistant left out of the shack and started to wander aimlessly towards the last vestiges of daylight. I began to realise just how particularly futile my position was.
I had no idea where I was and I was not able to ask directions because:
1) I don’t speak Arabic
2) I was a genuine kidnap threat over there
3) I had no idea what my apartment complex was called
I pensively trudged a bit further.
The streets were starting to get much darker and dingier as I blindly walked on. I began to consider how I could utilise a lukewarm, grease-stained pizza box in combat should the situation call for it. Three sloping, whispering kids had started following me and I seemed to be attracting more and more suspicious glances from people as I walked by. It was as if I was some sort of pizza-wielding Pied Piper.
Hoping for inspiration, I wandered into a street drifting competition, not an uncommon occurrence in Tripoli. I immediately stole focus. Even the twirling, smoking BMW came sliding towards me to see the wide-eyed Brit with the death wish.
Parting the crowds and hastening my step somewhat, I strode on clutching my soggy cardboard close to my chest. By some miracle, I somehow glimpsed a shop I faintly recognised and, like a desperate man shambling towards a desert oasis, veered off down a blind alley.
Once I was through the dank, puddle-strewn alleyway, negotiating my way past ominously rattling dumpsters, it slowly dawned on me that I had been walking adjacent to my own street for quite some time. I happened to be remarkably close to my apartment, completely through luck and absolutely no judgement. Sheer relief.
I got home.
My pizza was Mediterranean. Not even a stray Jalapeno. It was delicious.