“I have to go, right now.” Daniel doesn’t just look fatigued, the effort of the 50km of the day etched into his face. He also looks a little… scared? “The baby hasn’t been sleeping at all, and I need to go home and help.” I stumble back to my feet. Just moments before we’d walked back onto the gravel bike race track Daniel had gone on a few weeks ago. The promise of water on a graveyard by the end of the track had lured us on to it. We rush back out of the woods, and with a minute to spare, Daniel gets back on the bus to Hamburg. “Today was tough with the weather, but don’t let that stop you!” He grins at me. “Crazy frigging idea, crazy as f*ck.” He waves as he gets on.
And leaves me behind.
I’m alone again.
Now, there’s something to be said for traveling with people. The constant support, the energy they seem to have in constant resupply (especially Daniel, with his infectious brand of humor), the fact that I seem to be getting lost less. But there’s also that freedom that comes with traveling on your own. The possibility to go absolutely and exclusively at your own pace, forging your own path and circling back to where you had lost said path.
I wanted nothing of that the moment I was suddenly on my own again.
I try to call my brother, tell him about the latest developments, and my rising panic. He doesn’t answer the phone, but I do reach my parents. “Be careful out there in the woods, there are so many things that can kill you!” Not the pep talk I was hoping for, but at least it’s a bit of conversation. The graveyard and the promise of water is still so, so many endless kilometers away.
Finally, much, much later than I had hoped, I reach it. It’s dark by now, the sun has set, and I am completely out of water. I open the creaking door to the graveyard gate and wander in between the tombstones, desperate to find a tap, any sort of water supply. A few lit candles give off a soft glow in the dusk. I finally find a tap – but the water has been turned off.
I call Daniel. “The tap water here is turned off! Do you remember where it was last time on your race?” – “Oh shit. Actually, I just marked it on the map as it was, I didn’t expect it not to have running water!” I’m starting to panic. My phone battery is low, my watch (and built in navigation system) has died, I’m out of water, and without water, I have nothing to eat, because everything on my requires cooking.
Oh, and I’m on a graveyard at night.
I ring the doorbell at a house right outside the graveyard gate. I am barely keeping it together at this point. I need water. I need food. I need a break. It’s 10PM, but I can see a soft orange glow coming out from underneath the heavy curtains. I feel terrible for ringing someone’s doorbell at night. Perhaps they were still asleep. I can hear commotion and voices, a man and a woman, asking what that was.
But they don’t open the door. They don’t peek through the curtains. And I am too terrified of trying again, the voice sounded upset – rightfully so. I back off, lip trembling, too tired to stand on my own two feet any moment longer.
But I have to.
So I stumble back to the main street, hoping I’ll see a light, maybe there’s someone by a window, someone taking their dog for a walk, anyone, really, who can help and give me water.
That’s when I see a window – open. Through the flapping curtains, I glimpse a man, working on his computer. “I’m sorry!” I say, walking closer. He looks up. “Do you have water?” He looks confused, but nods. A few moments later, he opens the front door and hands me a bottle with a small smile. “Thank you,” I whisper, close to tears. I try to pour the water into my little water bag, hands shaking. A boy walks up to me, and watches me fumble with the bottle. “Hey, there. What’s your name?” I ask him. I’m still busy trying not to lose it. I am so exhausted. I still have to go back into the woods, find a place to camp, prepare dinner, and only then can I sleep. “Mohammed!” The boy tells me with a big smile. “Who are you, and what are you doing?”
That does it. I am a crying mess on the front porch. “I’m… running.” He doesn’t understand. By now, there are 4 kids out on the porch with me. He tries again, to give my words, my behavior meaning. “Where are you from?” – “Berlin,” I sniffle. Suddenly the kids are all in a swarm around me. “Please, you must rest, come in,” one girl says. “Yes, come and rest,” another tells me as she grabs my backpack off the porch and carries it into the house.
“It’s going to be okay,” the boy says.
“And if you want to, you can stay here tomorrow, and the day after, and the week after that!” Rahaf and Ragat, the oldest two girls, are chattering as they turn the kitchen upside down to put food in front of me. Their mom helps, mostly silent, smiling at me, and occasionally asking her kids to translate my stories. Rahaf places six boiled eggs in front of me, as well as a glass of milk. Someone knows their protein stats. “Do you speak Turkish?” I venture a guess, and receive a giggle in reply. “I wish,” one of them says. “We only speak Arabic.” Their dad adds: “We’re from Syria.” – “But we’re working really hard on our German!” Ragat says, in perfect German. “And do you like it here?” I ask, while stuffing my face with the bread and butter they’ve placed in front of me. “Yes, very much,” They say excitedly. “Back home, there are so many things girls can’t do. Here, girls are basically boys!” They grin at me, as if my existence proves their point that much more.
Rahaf and Ragat get their bedroom ready, sharing a mattress on the floor together so I can sleep in their bed. They tell me of their own journey on foot from Syria to Germany. It’s hard to reconcile the cheerful storytelling, the frequent giggles with the brutal nature of their tale’s content. From having to toss all of their favorite belongings and toys over a cliffside of a mountain; that they were pointed towards “just a day in that direction” with a bottle of water per person, and it turned out to be a two day hike up a mountain in the sun; the fact that the man guiding them across kept yelling at them “If you ever want to see your father again, you have to walk!” Their dad was waiting with a Visa for them in Germany. They just didn’t have any way to get there directly. “That’s why it would have been good to speak Turkish,” Rahaf tells me with a smile.
“Aren’t you… didn’t you… are you okay now?” I ask, stumbling over the words, because my mind still cannot bring the these perfectly normal, happy kids in sync with their terrible stories. “We were really, really young,” Ragat says. “Forgetting is easy,” Rahaf adds. “I do it all the time!” The girls giggle.
We go to bed past midnight, and the next morning, after being fed and handed more food than I can carry, I drop them off at the bus station. “Thank you so much for helping me,” I tell at them as they board the bus. The driver is already waving at them impatiently. “If anyone ever asks for my help in the future, I’m going to think of you!” The girls wave and smile back at me. “That’s the best thing you could do for us.”
With that, they drive off.
And I shuffle on.