Beastly Journeys: Unusual Tales of Travel With Animals. Habibi by Sheelagh Reynolds

Beastly Journeys: Unusual Tales of Travel With Animals is a new anthology from Bradt focusing on true stories about travelling with animals. Writers include David Attenborough, Dervla Murphy, Gerald Durrell and Dom Tullet (the winner of last year’s Edward Stanford Travel Writers Awards New Travel Writer) to name a few. To celebrate its launch, we have a couple of the stories from the book for you to read online. Here is Habibi by Sheelagh Reynolds. Grab a cup of tea and have a read.

Habibi

by Sheelagh Reynolds

The sun had his hat on. Big time. He was shining so hard and hot on to the square in the centre of Chefchaouen that every living thing seemed to have put life on hold for a while. The shopkeepers stopped their hassling, the tourists took a break from their bargaining and the dogs lounged listlessly, sprawled out on the ground under the tables and chairs set outside the numerous cafés. Even the swallows had taken a break from their frantic, swooping, fly-catching activities in favour of hunkering down inside their hole-in-the-wall nests until the heat grew a little more tolerable. I stopped too and sat down under a tree with a glass of sweet, iced mint tea in order to gather my strength for a final round of bantering battle with the wily shopkeepers. Sitting became a slump and shortly thereafter a full horizontal pose.

My friend and I had come to the end of a wonderful Moroccan odyssey that had taken us from the fishing port of Essaouira in the west, up into the High Atlas Mountains in the centre of the country, down again to the souks of Marrakech and Fez and now, in enchanting, pastel-blue-washed Chefchaouen, I was intent on a last-minute gathering of mementos to jigsaw into my luggage. A small rug, an ammonite – definitely; a wrought-iron framed mirror – possibly; a mosaic-topped table – almost certainly not. But not in my wildest dreams had I considered Habibi.

Out of the corner of one half-closed eye, I gradually became aware of movement emanating from a small, dome-shaped object in a cage about twelve inches square set on the cobbles nearby. First one scaly little leg, then another; then two more legs extended very, very slowly out from under a tiny carapace. At the front end an ancient face; at the back a small, pointy tail. A tortoise, an excuse for a tortoise, smaller than the palm of my hand, banged up in solitary in the fearsome heat with no food and no water. ‘Help me!’ he (or she) was surely crying as he banged into the bars of the cage and opened his mouth to reveal a shiny pink interior. And so I did. I bought him and took him away in a plastic bag.

Back in our hotel Habibi – the name means ‘my love’ in Arabic – very quickly made himself at home. I had bought provisions – tomatoes, greens, a carrot – while the lid of a nearly empty jar of Nivea sufficed as a water bowl. Habibi immediately tucked in, employing his rather large tongue to get the food into his mouth and making surprisingly loud crunching noises for a creature so diminutive. Having completed his meal he wandered off under the bed, tucked all his bits back inside his shell and proceeded to do a very good impersonation of a pebble.

The next step should probably have been to return Habibi to the surrounding barren hills where he could meet up with his kind and live happily ever after – if not recaptured. But this is not what happened. I had recently buried my old dog and missed him dreadfully. I wanted some animal companionship, someone to welcome me home after a long day at work, and it occurred to me that Habibi might just fit the bill. This would, of course, involve smuggling…

Many years before, as a student, I had done a good bit of smuggling without a second thought and without a shred of nerves. I lived in Jersey where the allowance of duty-free cigarettes to take over to the mainland for each university term was just two hundred. I would carefully remove the outer cellophane from the carton, empty all the cigarettes from their boxes and return them individually to the carton, managing to pack in quite a few more than the original two hundred. The tricky bit was easing the wrapper back over the carton, but the result looked good enough to sail through customs every time.

Travelling from Jersey to Heathrow involved one custom point; this particular journey involved no fewer than five. From Chefchaouen we travelled to the port of Ceuta. Here were two custom points, because although Ceuta is on the African continent, it is in fact Spanish and there is a no-man’s-land and rather a lot of armed guards overseeing emigration. Over the water, at Algeciras, lay number three. Habibi was nonplussed (unlike my friend) and obligingly continued his pebble impersonation in my rucksack. However, and perhaps in the nick of time, it occurred to me that if he were to extrude his six appendages, namely head, tail and four limbs, his image on the X-ray machine might give the game away. And so, at each of the five challenges, I tucked him down the front of my jeans and took him through the metal detector arch with me. Tortoise in pants, heart in mouth. We spent a night in Algeciras where training began in earnest as there was no money left for a final night out. ‘Habibi, come!’ Pebble. ‘Habibi, fetch.’ Pebble. I was beginning to wonder if I may have made a mistake, but there was no going back now. My friend and I played cards, drank our Baileys and had an early night – perchance to dream. Not a chance! All night long the would-be pebble clattered noisily across the bathroom tiles, banging into everything in his path – toilet pedestal, waste bin, shower tray – all the while excreting unreasonable amounts of slimy processed vegetable matter from his rear end. Habibi seemed to enjoy the flight home and was very active despite his night out on the tiles. I took a photograph of him sitting on the plane seat next to me enjoying the lettuce from my sandwich.

We made it home. I made a pen which took up more than half my not-very-big kitchen. I hired a light to keep him warm. He never greeted me with enthusiasm. Never wagged his tail. Never asked to be let out. ‘My love’ was a disappointment. But Habibi went to a far better home. He lived in an incubator for three years until he was big enough to cope with the English climate. I now have two guinea pigs, and still think about getting a dog.

Sheelagh Reynolds was born and brought up in Jersey and lived in Hong Kong and New Zealand for a good part of her adult life. After retiring from a late-onset career in midwifery she embarked on a year of solo travel, and is currently pondering what on earth to do next.

Join us on Monday 18th June as we welcome the travel writer and founder of Bradt Travel Guides, Hilary Bradt to Stanfords to talk about her travels and some of the amazing stories from the new book. Joining her will be travel writers Sheelagh Reynolds, Graham Mackinstosh and Dom Tullet.

For tickets and more details please visit: eventbrite.co.uk

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