Cycling to the Sahara: Two Coffee Cups

I arrived in Hammamet exactly the way I expect to arrive in every single town that I come to: sweaty, tired and slightly bewildered.

On arrival in any town, therefore, primary goal number one is to find a hotel, where I can stable my bicycle for the night and give myself a thorough wash down. Quite often, I’ll even pull up outside town to look at the guide book for my target hotel. It doesn’t look cool to be head-in-book in a strange new town (for the importance of looking cool, see yesterday’s shabaab story).

This is all preamble, to introduce you to primary goal number one: find a hotel. I shall now go onto demonstrate its tragic flaw, by means of the parable of the two coffee cups, a true story.

Arriving in Hammamet, sweaty, tired, slightly bewildered, I’m heading for the Dar al-Shabaab, the Maison des Jeunes, the Youth Hostel. Everything is going fine (except the bit where a shabaab gets down on his haunches to tinker with my brakes – I have no idea what that’s about). Quite according to form, I zip straight past the youth hostel and cycle on for about a mile (up hill, into headwind) before realising. But eventually I do find the place and – it’s full.

As I slink back to my bicycle and my uncool guide book, a young Tunisian woman of about eighteen approaches me and suggests I try the tourist information office: “They have a list of all the hotels and how much they cost,” she tells me. “Thanks very much,” I say, trying to look cool, “but I have a guide book.”

She shrugs and crosses the road to a café, her mother now in tow. I note the address of another cheap hotel and start to wheel my bike into the road. Then the young woman approaches me again: “Would you like to join me and my mother at the café for a drink?” I obviously look uncertain, because she feels compelled to add: “Just to talk a little.”

Now my immediate reaction is negative, standard social anxiety. I push against this snap-reaction: social anxiety is exactly the reason I should say yes – go where the danger is! But my brain wrestles back: No, primary goal number one, remember? So I say to the woman, in my blunt French: “I want to find a hotel.” She says “Okay” and returns to the café. I last see her sitting down at the table, looking over at me.

It doesn’t take me long to realise that I’m a chump and I really should have said yes and hang primary sodding goal number one. How many more times on this trip is a young Tunisian woman going to ask me to take a coffee with her and her mother? Never again, most likely. And it’s only three thirty; I could just as easily have found a hotel at four thirty. And what’s the worst that could have happened if I’d said yes? She and her mum might have ganged up and raped me? Seriously! Chump.

But anyway, I cycle on, find a hotel and take a shower. I’m wonderfully clean, but still a chump. So I hasten back to the café, thinking up words of schoolboy French to reintroduce myself. My excitement mounts as I draw closer, mind working up scenarios of hospitality and good humour.

But all in vain. By the time I get back to the café, only half an hour after leaving them, all that is left are two empty coffee cups.

I took a photo to remind myself: never leave two empty coffee cups, leave three.

Gone.

Cycling to the Sahara: Beards and the Shabaab

For the sake of my future security on this trip I think I need to grow a big manly beard. You know, the kind that big manly adventurers are wont to port.

This is not because I feel that I am deserving of the adventurer’s big manly beard, nor in fact do I mean to suggest that I am currently engaged on a big manly beardy adventure. Far from it: the sun is shining and the roads are flat. No, the reason I am desirous of a big manly adventure beard is because today I was the subject of sexual advances from a shabaab on a moped who thought I was a woman.

Undeterred despite being disabused of this fact – had he not seen my leg hair? – the desperate youth went on to suggest that man-on-man sex was better anyway. I politely declined this further invitation, whereupon he stole my walkman from my top pocket. Slightly distressed, I appealed to his better nature, whereupon he stole the bag from my front basket and drove off.

I feel that none of this would have happened had I been sporting a big manly beard. This impudent youth would never have dared rob a real beard – a beard that spoke of death-match wrestles with grizzly bears, a beard that hinted at dark days hacking through tarantula-infested jungles, a beard that sung songs of violent tempests and nightmarish sandstorms overcome by sheer force of will and beardy fortitude.

In this moment of desolation, as I watched my camera, books, passport and typewriter disappear down a hill, I cursed my razor and howled bloody vengeance on all fresh-faced highwaymen on mopeds.

Before I let this tale get too dramatic, I should point out that the shameful youth only drove a little way down the hill, before turning around and handing me back my bag and walkman. ‘I’m just playing with you,’ he said with a cackle. Playing or no, I think a beard would have helped avoid this unsettling occasion in the first place.

What helped me recover was the nice old man in a van who stopped up the road, turned around, checked that I was okay, then proceeded to tail me up the hill for a mile or so just to make sure.

So the truth is that Tunisians are still awesomely friendly. The problem comes when this awesome friendliness meets rambunctuous testosterone frustrations in the shabaab, who smile even as they torment you.

But what harm was done by this little escapade? None that I can see, only lessons. I learnt how vulnerable I really am on a bicycle. I learnt that perhaps I should tie down my bag to the basket. I learnt to appreciate how much I am relying on the unremmitting kindness, relentless patience and righteous morality of every person I meet, everywhere I go.

I also got a nice little story and isn’t that the purpose of life, to collect nice little stories?

Bir Mroua: A story in itself. Yes, that is a blue supermouse.

(Finally) Cycling to the Sahara!

I have a few early observations about cycling in Tunisia, which I shall set down here as amusement for those wise enough never to do such a thing and as warning for those stupid enough to try.

1. There are some red lights that Tunisian drivers obey. This came as something of a shock, I must confess. Obviously, as in any country, this doesn’t apply to taxi drivers.

2. The biggest risk for accidents comes from pedestrians. As the sacred cow in India, the Tunisian pedestrian is apt to wander into the road without warning, causing sharp braking all around. Other risks include taxis swerving kerbside to pick up passengers and the presence (in Tunis) of tram rails, neatly tyre-width sized for maximum danger.

3. There are other cyclists in Tunisia. But in this country, bicycles are mostly used for going the wrong way up one-way streets.

4. Despite this, I did notice that in Tunisia, one cycles on the right hand side of the road.

5. Tunisian sense of distance isn’t highly developed. I asked a local: “How far is the Olympic stadium?”
(The Olympic stadium at this point is at most 3km away – I checked on a map later.)
Answer: “10 kilometres.”
In fairness to the chap telling me this, he probably understood:

6. If you are cycling without a map and without a compass, expect to ride at least three times the distance to your destination, probably up hill, certainly into a head wind. This applies not just in Tunisia.

7. Thanks to the relatively meagre state of Tunisia, alcohol-wise, there is very little to fear from smashed bottles of Heineken on the side of the road. However, thanks to the relatively meagre state of Tunisia’s finances, there is plenty to fear in the form of pot-holes, unifinished road-works and mysteriously dumped piles of cement.

8. An important aspect of Tunisian driving etiquette is a sort of conversation undertaken by use of the car horn. Unfortunately, with just a bicycle bell, I’m only talking to myself.

9. A blonde, long-haired, white man on an apparently modern bicycle is an unusual sight in Tunisia. I’m not sure if they were admiring glances, looks and stares, but the general opinion was “w’allah!”

10. Other than these observations, cycling in Tunis is not unlike cycling in London. One needs ones wits and a healthy dose of good fortune to come back alive, but when one does, great celebrations are in order. Put celebrations on stand-by.

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Boats

Getting hit over the head by a palm tree is new for me on this trip. But one thing isn’t: public transport delays. You read my earlier piece about trains, right? Okay, well do me a favour and read it again, but this time wherever you see the word “train” or “trains”, insert the word “boat” or “boats”. You can do this using the search and replace function in Word or OpenOffice.

Doing this will save me the bother of writing a whole new post about the universe’s conspiracies to prevent me from getting to the Sahara. This time the universe decided to detonate a WWII bomb in the port of Marseille, which is frankly ridiculous, even by the universe’s standards. This delayed us for a slightly enervating five hours. As if that wasn’t enough, when we finally did make it (almost) to Tunis, an Italian cruiser had the temerity to be in port, delaying us for a further hour.

Waiting. Observe the bicycles in transit on the van. I mistakenly take this as a good sign.

We finally arrived in Tunis at about 3.30pm, a full 31 hours after I arrived at the port of Marseille on Saturday morning. Still, I managed 9 patisseries on Saturday alone (5 croissants and 4 pain au chocolat), saving one pain au choc for Sunday breakfast, squeezed down between bouts of extreme nausea. I’m not sure why, but as soon as I got up that morning, I might as well have been on the Nemesis at Alton Towers. I remedied things by going back to sleep.

Aside from the tragedy/farce of my public transport difficulties, the journey itself was pretty good. Particularly after I found the bar, where they were showing the Six Nations rugby. I don’t even like rugby, but it was fun hearing Frenchmen swear every time Italy fumbled the ball in their match against Wales.

Unfortunately, this oasis of entertainment on an otherwise make-your-own-fun kind of boat was not long-lived. At half-time in the following Ireland-Scotland game suddenly the TV flashed to black. We look at each other, the guys sitting around watching. Then: disco lights snap on, tangoing drunkenly over the wooden dancefloor in front of us. Surely not? It’s only five to seven – surely too early for a disco?

Nope. A man goes behind a desk and starts setting up what can only be a DJ booth. The men around me stay staring at the blank screen. Nothing happens. No one else is laughing. We sit, flat faced. We will be entertained now, for it is seven o’clock. We will be entertained.

A beat starts over the speakers. The DJ has glasses and a bald patch, wearing a terribly unfashionable Puma t-shirt. He pulls out some CDs and nervously tweaks the volume of the music. The disco lights, pink and green dazzle and tease a trio of white-haired grizzled Frenchmen with tiny espressos and firmly folded arms. Not impressed.

The waiter is the only one crossing the dancefloor. I wonder what people would make of it if I went up and danced? I suspect that I’m the only non-French or Tunisian here. I’ve seen a few other independent tourists with the French version of the same Lonely Planet guide I have. That’s encouraging. It’s not all Tunisians and televisions, although it seemed like it when we were loading up the boat. Everyone seemed to have a van or a car, creaking on its axles under piles of households wares of all kinds. Blankets, televisions, fridges, bicycles, grandmothers – the lot, all tied down with string.

The DJ stops the record and slaps another one on abruptly. Kind of low key grind, slow steady beat. A deep voice sings something soothing in English. The DJ keeps himself busy, too scared to look up, knowing he’s being observed in shock and horror by his audience. He feels the pressure, puts his arms hands down either side of his CDs and takes a heavy sigh.

It looked like it was going to be a good match too, 22-14 to Irish at half-time. But this is business time. The DJ claps on his headphones and twiddles.
‘I want you just the way you are…’ someone croons.

Goodbye Europe.

I decide to leave this entertainment and proceed to make my own fun, as instructed. I observe the following about my person:

I am from Cholsey, but…
I have lipsalve bought from Liverpool;
I have a book bought from Paris;
I have shoes bought from Hamburg;
I have a bottle of water bought from Koln;
I have a shirt bought from Bangkok;
I have a bicycle bought from London;
I have a plug converter bought from Cairo;
I have dates bought from Reading;
I have socks bought from Vernouillet;
I have croissants bought from Marseille;
…and I am in the Mediterranean.

Right. Not all fun you make yourself is strictly fun, is it?

Things did get progressively less dull with nightfall. I climbed up to the top deck, unrolled my sleeping bag and slept under the stars. It was fitful and a little cold at times, but at least it was peaceful.

A decent sight to fall asleep to.

In amongst the fun, there was a lot of sitting around and I had the opportunity to observe my ship-mates. Most of my companions were Tunisian men and it was quite fun watching them form conversational groupings here and there, including me sometimes whenever they needed some light entertainment.

There were women on board, but the two groups didn’t really mix. At one stage, I found myself eavesdropping on four military men talking about Syria, Iran and Israel up on deck. All I could think was: shame no women are here to talk some sense into them. Everywhere I look it’s the same: groups of men talking earnestly together. I like guy-talk as much as the next man, but I can’t imagine talking politics without ever getting a female perspective. What a dull (and dangerous) way to see the world.

Tunis. Eventually.

Anyway, we did eventually make it to Tunis (in your own time, Mr Italian cruiser) and the first thing a real Tunisian from Tunis said to me was (in French): “Nice set of wheels, guv.”

At least I think that’s what he said, because I was too busy sorting my pedals out after the port authorities had seen fit, not only to x-ray my baggage and metal detect myself, but also to x-ray my bicycle. I can tell you right now that bicycles are not supposed to go into x-ray machines and it was promptly chewed up and had to be surgically removed by a none-too-careful customs inspector. There was a cat prowling along the customs tables. I assume he was in charge.

Wheeling out of the arrivals lounge was fun, though. A rank of taxi drivers greeted me, seeing my blonde head bobbing across to them.
“Taxi…” they all shout, but the word fades in their throats as they see my bold stallion wheeling alongside me. Then: “Nice set of wheels, guv.”

(Not) Cycling to the Sahara: Marseille 2

The town of Marseille is dishonest. That’s how it seems to me. And I don’t mean that as you might think. I don’t mean it because a friend of mine got pick-pocketed twice within an hour of arriving here. That’s ridiculous. That could happen anywhere. It certainly didn’t happen to me. The tangle of streets around the Gare Saint Charles that seemed so dangerous to the Americans, Czechs and French in the hostel, to me seemed friendly, approachable.

The town is dishonest in another way – perhaps a better word would be inauthentic. It is dishonest, or inauthentic, because it is neither France nor the Maghreb. It cannot be France because it is home to too many migrants from the Maghreb, North Africa (70,000 in 2006 according to one source). And it cannot be the Maghreb because it is not their home, it is France.

La Porte d’Orient. A memorial to dead people who fought in the East.

Because of the current economic condition of France, there are too many young Maghrebi men on the streets, just waiting to go home. That’s not a very restful state of mind and helps to create Marseille’s frantic atmosphere. Many are resentful of their French hosts and the feeling is mutual. It is nearing election time and last week Sarkozy declared that there are too many foreigners in France.

While waiting for the ferry to take me to Tunisia, I spoke to a friendly Tunisian man (a tautology if ever there was one: they are all friendly). He told me that French attitudes towards resident foreigners are going down. Scared by the prospect of the forthcoming elections, Sarkozy is blaming France’s high unemployment and faltering economy on foreigners. Cheap and nasty political rhetoric.

But with Ben Ali gone in Tunisia, my friend can return to his country. He can take his business near the Swiss border, take his taxes and leave. Tunisia is the gateway to North Africa and is the beneficiary of a lot of investment after the revolution.
 “I can say ciao to Sarkozy,” my friend says, bitterly.

“Ciao Sarkozy.”

Others are not so lucky. Every evening while in Marseille I went to an Algerian kebab shop right next to the hostel. It was cheap, E2.50 for a merguez sandwich, and the proprietor was friendly, always smiling, always joking. But he was dishonest, of course. No, he never short-changed me, but he never knew when to speak Arabic and when to speak French. Overwhelmingly, to other guests, it was Arabic. But we were in France, so to me he spoke French. And his smile disappeared when he spoke of Algeria. His gap-tooth grin morphed into a snarl of fierce pride.
 ‘Do you know Algeria?’ he asked me.
 ‘No,’ I replied.
 ‘Why not? It is a beautiful country, better than Morocco, better than Tunisia.’ He looked angry. All I could do was smile and say that I hoped to go there soon.

Marseille is dishonest because, even as the exterior is given a fresh lick of paint for its parade as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, on the inside it is tearing itself apart. It is France’s major link to North Africa, with all of the history, violence and despair which that entails. So how can it dare to reinvent itself as a tourist destination? It is the crucible of too many Maghrebi dreams: of freedom from tyranny and of return. It is dishonest as a place where people both yearn to arrive and yearn to leave. It is better than oppression, dictatorships or civil war – and it is nothing. These contradictions pull strongly in two directions and you pull together or you pull apart, to make use of a cliche.

Marseille’s football team is perhaps a symptom of this malaise. With so many North Africans, Marseille is the most tribally of supported teams in France. North Africans are simply more passionate about football than Frenchmen. But the team is a shambles. They have lost four games in a row, sit eighth in the league and last night were defeated by AC Ajaccio, a newly promoted team from Corsica. The feeling in the bar where I watched the match was anticipated deflation. A group from Lille sitting on the next table along covered their mouths to hide their laughter as the winning goal was bundled in via a deflection, a suspicion of handball and a static goalkeeper. The ball scarcely crept over the line. The bar rumbled threateningly.

Then there was a power cut. The bar cheered. Welcome distraction.

Not the Stade Velodrome. These kids might be better than the current hapless bunch.