There is a word in Greek, xenia, which translates (badly) as ‘guest friendship’. It manifests as generous hospitality to strangers and travellers and is a common theme in Ancient Greek mythology.
I remember studying xenia as a central theme of The Odyssey. As Odysseus is battered and blown from port to port across the Mediterranean Sea, his return to Ithaka is made possible thanks only to extravagant displays of xenia by the people upon whose shores he washes up. (With the exception of witches who turn his crew into pigs and the like.)
One of those to help him (after a seven year delay…) with wine, bread and a raft was a nymph who gave her name to the the Thighs of Steel support van – Calypso.
Thighs of Steel, like the famous Odyssey, is a journey entirely dependent on the extraordinary xenia of those we meet, those who fill our water bottles, find us camping spots, give directions and food and welcoming smiles.
Xenia may be a Greek concept, but there must surely be a similar word in Albanian. Everywhere we went this week we have been almost assaulted with outrageous generosity.
Three cafe owners refused to let us pay for our coffees or cold drinks, and one gave us chocolate bars when we asked if we could use his toilet.
A car wash owner (Albania is full of lavazh car washes) broke off his siesta and fixed my bike while his black-clad mother brought out a watermelon and ice water for the rest of the group.
It seemed that whenever we went to pay, we were met with a touch of the heart and a smile. Such was the hospitality that it became almost an embarrassment.
One afternoon, as the sun crushed us like bugs into the asphalt, we spotted what we thought was a bar where we might be able to buy drinks and eat our leftover lunches from last night’s dinner.
But when we rolled up to the establishment, the bar turned out to be a restaurant. Quite a fine restaurant, with white cloths on busy tables that were piled up with plates of salad and grilled fish.
‘Maybe they’ll let us eat our lunch here anyway?’
At this suggestion, two thoughts surfaced:
This is Albania: of course the proprietor will let us eat our pots of chilli and bread rolls at his restaurant, use his toilet, fill up our water bottles and cool off in the shade of his veranda. He would touch his heart and smile.
If this Albanian man showed up at any restaurant in the UK and asked to eat his packed lunch, use the toilet and fill his water bottles under the shade of the veranda, there is no way in hell he’d be given anything other than an angry clip round the ear.
I felt ashamed and walked off down the road, looking for any corner of unbleached stone where we could sit and picnic. By the time I came back, the rest of the group was pulling out our food as the restaurant owner welcomed them with a fresh table cloth. A neighbouring table of soldiers clinked beer bottles and translated.
As it happened, we ended up buying quite a lot of extra food, so I think it worked out pretty well for the kind restauranteur, but that’s not the point. I have never known such unrelenting generous hospitality from an entire citizenry on my travels before.
Some people might like to go for a drink or something afterwards. Who knows.
Those were the last words I wrote in my diary before heading out for an evening food tour in Napoli.
64 hours later, my Neapolitan food tour finally ended in an orgy of pastries and coffee – my companion and I fervently insisting with each successive bite that we were quite replete and couldn’t possibly finish it all.
Reader: we finished it all. Not just that morning, but the whole long weekend. All of it. There was not a corner of Napoli that went unsampled by our insatiable taste buds.
The official tour started from the shadow of Dante’s statue and led us around the street food of Napoli.
Buffala mozzerella fresh that morning – quite unlike the mozzerella palmed off on us in Great Britain. Served with carralo biscuits made with almonds dry as dustpaper, best suited to mopping up the olive oil dripping from your antipasti.
Limoncello, of course, made with lemons from Sorrento and alcohol from Dante’s Inferno. Aperol spritz in cheap plastic cups, served from windows open straight onto the street.
Two species of pizza, from Sorbillo’s – the finest pizzeria in Napoli and thus the world. First pizza a portafoglio – a simple wallet pizza that’s eaten folded and on the run, then pizza fritta – a deep fried specimen that wouldn’t be out of place on a night out in Glasgow.
Frittatine di pasta is a depth charge of carbohydrates, macaroni, bechamel and pork weighted with enough oil to power a medium-sized caravan. One to be halved, quartered, and shared to soak up the limoncello.
Sfogliatelle, rhum babá and gelato to finish. Or so I thought.
‘You guys wanna come for a drink?’ asked a voice I would come to know well from the late night, early morning menu inspections that would plaster our weekend.
She’d come for the coastline, Capri and Amalfi. But the storm we watched roll in one night – sea spray dousing our wine – put paid to that. So we sacrificed ourselves instead to tracking down the city’s gourmet offerings of seafood and pasta.
I don’t have the heart to ruin your Friday lunch (nor mine) with any more distant dishes. Suffice to say that, were I still wandering the alleyways of Napoli, I suspect I would already have Type 2 diabetes and a drinking problem.
Smooth stone slabs and close houses make for a furnace. Narrow alleys burst open onto ornate cathedrals. Religious niches behind glass. A white dog with a pink tongue. Songbirds. The street spills into houses, households tumble onto the street. Families in states of undress around a floral tablecloth, bunk beds in the corner. Impromptu greengrocers and fruit-sellers. Washing lines decorate the walls. Courtyards hidden behind doorways and pillars. Cigarette vending machines. And, above all, mopeds.
I’ve been spending the last three days learning how to walk properly.
For those of you who have always known there was something excessively aquatic about my gait, I’m afraid that I have merely been training to become a Hill and Moorland Walk Leader.
What that means for me is lots of tramping, stomping and yomping across terrain ill-suited to my boots, which are, in turn, ill-fitted to my feet.
But what that means for this blog post is that it’s already 9pm and I’m squeezing in what writing I can with my laptop on my knees, my knees on a chair and that chair on a train clattering its way to a south coast resort best known for its twin Harvester restaurants.
Now, I suppose I could have written this post a few days ago, knowing that I would be spending the rest of the week on Dartmoor.
But then all I could have written about is the minor incident in which the car hire company (yes, I can drive!) upgraded me at no extra cost to what was effectively a Tiger Moth tank.
When it comes to cars these days, I feel like a great-uncle seeing a distant removable cousin for the first time in six months: My haven’t you grown!
My rented vehicle was exactly the sort of behemoth that, as an ardent cyclist, I usually bemoan. The SUV, a Renault, towered over the road, with the driver (me) a helpless mosquito in the cockpit.
Whatever happened to Nicole and Papa?
Despite the looming irony, I am grateful that I didn’t (to my knowledge) murder any cyclists, although I did very nearly have an altercation with a grazing of ponies.
But, you know, my graded-up monster truck did have in-built SatNav. Ooh, plus plus plus! … When you walked away from the so-called car with the key in your pocket it automatically locked the doors.
So probably worth the manslaughter charge anyway.
The only other incident of note before I stepped onto the moor was my arrival at the bunkhouse in Princetown.
When I sauntered into the attached pub to announce myself (having killed a family of four in the car park without really noticing), the barman smiled warmly and said, There are 11 of you, right?
Er, no. Not really. I mean, I can see why you’d think that thing outside is a minibus, but no.
Yeah, yeah, I’m sure there was 11 of you in the book. Let’s have a look.
(Cue much shuffling of leaves in the bookings ledger.)
(We peruse the booking there indicated.)
It’s a half-sloshed local who has the tact to point out: You lummock – you’re looking at October.
We scrabble forward another couple of months and, in triumph, the barman jabs a finger down on today’s date: 11-13 David Charles.
Erm. Right. I think what’s happened there is that you’ve confused the dates I am lodging – the 11th to the 13th – with the number of people that make up my party.
Anyway, the upshot of that little incident was that I had the entire bunkhouse to myself. Probably a good thing as I spent most of my resting hours completely naked thanks to the over-enthusiastic central heating.
So, yeah. Not much to write about this week. Sorry.
One man chased after me waving his stick because my train ticket fell out of my pocket. Another beckoned me down a shortcut into town.
The pasty saleswoman seemed to be competing with me for variety and number of ways to say thank you.
The cafe owner took me outside to show me the Three Peaks (they were hidden by the houses and a dense bank of cloud), describing the distinctive challenge of each and the wonderful views to be had (on a fine day).
I set off down the pedestrianised centre of Abergavenny, clutching my map and compass, in a thoroughly good mood, and in thoroughly the wrong direction.
Correcting my course back to what turned out to be the wrong church, I realigned my map and strode up the lane to The First Stile. Continue reading The First Stile
I’m a slow traveller. I’ve taken only one return flight in the last 8 years – and that was to prove to myself that I wasn’t not flying out of pride or habit.
So while the other Thighs of Steel cyclists packed up their bikes and drove out to Sofia airport for a three-hour flight home, I cycled down to the bus station for the first leg in a journey that took three days.
Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.
Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.
If ever you feel that life isn’t quite lining up, or that your blood isn’t quite circulating as it should, or that you haven’t seen or smelt or heard anything different in a while, take a trip out of your front door and ask strangers how you can help.
Here I present to you a user’s guide to cycling (with a bicycle) in Athens, Greece. The guide is presented in no particular order and intends to offer bicyclopaedic information on Athenian attitudes, traffic, roads and even the mythical cycle lane(s).
The air is cool, but the sun is hot. I can smell that smell of hot stones and gasoline, sweet rotting rubbish, atomising flowers, or charring meat. It’s what my nose knows as the southern Mediterranean.
Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.
This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!
Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules, I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.
I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?
This post is coming to you LIVE from the Milan-Brindisi train. Currently paused at Trinitapoli, where the air smells of rain and the clouds are ripped from oil paintings. Somewhere over there is the Adriatic, across which (with any luck) I shall be sailing tomorrow evening.
The man opposite me, in shirt sleeves and eyebrows, is eating one of those doughnut-shaped apricots, bringing the sharp tang of Italian soil and sunshine to the carriage. Continue reading Travel from the Heart
I was undeterred by the sight of a gaggle of ‘Run Doggy Run’ dogs being hauled into the water for a splash. Not even after one particularly enthusiastic hound decided to urinate over some reeds.
I’m sure his pee is already thoroughly diluted. Besides: worse things have certainly oozed in that water unseen, but still. Slightly distasteful to actually witness the event.
There is something magical about the swimmer’s view of the world. Instead of being on top of everything, you are 95% submerged. The banks rise up and the horizon stretches on forever as you gaze over your belly down stream. Continue reading Sunswim
After a week of fluctuating symptoms of flu, yesterday I was reminded of the healing power of a bike ride. The weight came off my shoulders as I cycled through the southerly reaches of Greater London, through back streets of spring sunshine, between grid-lines of daffodils, dodging traffic on green lanes and perking up parks. Has it been so long since that summer we shared?
The feeling was of a reflective moment during the playing of an old song: a moment of calm and clarity. It made me pick up the phone this lunchtime and call an old friend, stitching something together where it might have severed. That’s what a bike ride can do: that’s what being in-the-world can do – for me, at least.
I last took a flight in January 2010. I was still in my mid-to-late 20s, of no fixed abode (no change there) and had only been taking writing seriously for a year. I didn’t own a bicycle, had never worn a beard or grown my hair, and knew Cairo better than I knew any town outside London and my county of birth. Continue reading No No Aeroplanes: 98 Months and Out
Scotland, it turns out, knows how to put on a show.
As Ben and I walked out on Monday afternoon, squeezing in one last tramp before the drive back to civilisation, we were audience to a scene that the Scottish Tourist Board couldn’t have choreographed better. Continue reading Bothy Bothering: Cairngorms
Instead of slogging across the M4 corridor from London to Bristol, I took a one day flying-cycle across three counties from Bournemouth to Midford.
If I needed any reminder of why Britain is the most beautiful country to traverse, then I got it. I haven’t always thought this way about our shores, always wanting to be elsewhere and ideally elsewhen. But what better place is there than right here? Continue reading Biking Bournemouth-Bristol
Inspired by Robert MacFarlane’s book WildPlaces, I’ve spent the last few days tramping about the Inner Hebrides, specifically the isles of Mull and Iona.
First, for any doubters out there: the weather has been glorious – which for this country means only a couple of rainstorms. Other than that, only drizzle and sunshine. Continue reading Tomsleibhe, Isle of Mull
Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.
Yesterday, I arose before dawn and cycled to the New River Head in central London. From there, with my path companion Anna Hughes, we walked twenty-eight miles up river to Hertford, where I jumped into the water and finally let my swollen feet smolder. Then I came home.
Why? Why, oh why did I do this? Why, oh why, oh why did I do this again? In the last couple of years, I have walked from London to Canterbury and from London to Winchester: long, long rambles of dozens of destructive miles. It is now time to explain why I do this to myself.
But there are as many different explanations for my rambling as there are answers to the question, “Why do I breathe?” Anatomically-speaking, I breathe because my lungs expand and contract as I inhale and exhale air, because my blood cells demand a constant supply of oxygen, because breathing is a part of the process of respiration, because I must convert my food into energy, because I am alive and not dead.
Rambling is the same: explanations are buried from skin to spine, depending on where you look, but it’s all happening, it’s all true, all the time.
(I should warn you that I’m not a qualified anatomist, but that shouldn’t pose a serious danger to your health as you read my Anatomy of Rambling.)
The Central Nervous System of Rambling
A walk must have a destination. Please don’t take this literally. Yesterday, we walked to the source of the New River in Hertford, a clear geographical destination, but, in truth, this endpoint was arbitrary. “Getting there” was a sideshow in a destination that transcends geography; this was a destination of the mind. Journeys are not relocations, but transformations.
For that reason, journeys are popular in fiction: from The Odyssey, through Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings. Odysseus is lost on the seas for ten years before reaching his home on Ithaka; Don Quixote rambles La Mancha as a knight errant, defending the honour of Dulcinea del Toboso; Frodo journeys across Middle Earth to cast the One Ring into the fiery Cracks of Doom.
But the ostensible “goal” of the story – home, honour, the Cracks of Doom – is never the true purpose of the story. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and wishes Tolkein had edited the story more concisely: “Hobbit walks to Morder, loses precious ring, saves Middle Earth.” That does not capture the essence of the story. (Although would make a reasonable stand first for the Daily Mirror.)
In the same way, I will not remember our New River walk as: “Walked to Hertford, went swimming, came home tired.”
A fictional story begins by breaking the stasis of the protagonist’s normal life. The characters then enter into a remarkable world, of blinding Cyclopes, tilting at windmills and fleeing Ring Wraiths. This is where the plot happens. Finally, their object achieved, the characters return to the real world to continue their lives.
But they, and the reader with them, have been fundamentally changed by the events of the plot.
A walk is the same. For the duration of the walk, Anna and I stepped outside of our everyday lives, into a fantasy world of coots and sunburn, until we reached promised land of Hertford. We collapsed to the ground and ate Nutella. Then we went home.
But the path and the journey had as transformative effect on my psyche as any journey by any fictional character.
The Skin of Rambing
These concepts of destination and transformative journey are the central nervous system of our anatomy of rambling. Now we’ll move more quickly through the skin and bones, starting with the skin, the superficial nicities of a good walk.
Maps. Maps, although not necessary, are beautiful. I make no apology for that.
Food. One of the untrammeled joys of taking physical exercise is the eating. As Anne from the Famous Five was wont to remark: “I always think food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”
Walking companions. I’ve had the pleasure of many different companions on my walks, from friends to felines. Each one has shown me a part of themselves, and parts of myself, that I didn’t know existed.
Wildlife. This could be anything from watching two ponies groom each other to cuteness death on the bank of the canal, to spitting out an errant gnat; from the swish of tussock grass against your shins, to nettle rash.
Pain. Pain is central to the reality of rambling. Its purpose is to remind you that you are mortal, but, with fortitude, you can learn to persevere and create the order of progress out of the chaos of blisters and windburn.
Equipment. I revel in wearing a walking raincoat with a multiplicity of useful pockets or discovering that my pocket knife does have a tool for doing that thing.
Poetry and songs. Every walk has a particular rhythm, so it’s no surprise that every walk I’ve been on has heard me singing poetry and reciting songs. This time, Anna and I swapped Eliot and Hardy for Shakespeare and Browning.
Wayfarer’s Angels. (Not to be confused with Hell’s Angels.) There are always wayfarer’s angels, the people without whom the walk would be either impossible or difficult. The guy with ear defenders mowing the grass along the river path; the two young men tinkering with their sports car, who gave us an ice cold bottle of water; and of course Sir Hugh Myddleton, who four hundred years ago conceived and carried through his absurd idea of bringing drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the slums of central London. Thanks angels!
Terrain and landscape. Nodules bobbling the path underfoot, water balming the blisters on your sploshed feet, hills that come tumbling down towards you, only to turn aside at the last moment. Walks are about the nuance of terrain, as well as the grandeur of landscape.
Weather. The breeze picking up the air conditioning coolness of the canal, the sun bleaching the cotton of your clothes, clouds twisting petit pains patterns in the sky. We’ve all seen the weather, but a walk makes you live the weather.
The Universe. It’s always there, believe it or not, but very rarely does it make its presence felt. On a walk, though, you can’t help but notice that the sun is traversing the sky, burning your neck in the morning and your nose in the evening; while, on a night walk, you can’t help yourself navigating by the stars and dreaming of the moonlight.
The Bones of Rambling
The bones of rambling might often go unnoticed in the flash and fawn of the superficial skin, but fear not: they are the structure over which the skin is stretched.
Smallness. A walk seems impossibly slow, particularly in these days of aerobatic travel. But that slowness means you cannot help but appreciate the smallest of noticings: a water boatman on the surface of the river, a buttercup blowing in the breeze, an orange ladybird on the back of your hand. Without these bones of smallness, the skin delights of wildlife and terrain would go unappreciated.
Vastness. A long walk covers such unbearably painful distances in such constantly observable detail that its very smallness, its very detail, becomes an astonishing vastness that brings awe to the cuffs of your heart.
Depth. Smallness and the vastness combine to bring depth to a walk that is unlike any other human experience. A walk grinds into your soul and brings forth an unexpected spring of introspection, inspiration and insight. You’ll find this in the conversations that bubble up between you and your companion, or that bounce around in your head alone.
The moment you never want the walk to end. There are always moments like this: lying in the grass on the edge of the canal, the botanical breath of canal zephyrs filling your lungs; or the clump of every inevitable bootstep on the yielding towpath grass, in smooth mechanical perfection, walking into the dipping sun. You realise that it can’t get better than this and any complaints are quibbles. Don’t forget to take this feeling back with you into real life.
The journey home, also known as “the great unravelling”. There is nothing more satisfying, more awe-inspiring and more nostalgic, than watching the landscape that you’ve toiled through all day unravel through the flicker of a train carriage window. The experience heals you and forms the foundation for encorporating your transformation into your everyday life.
The Soul of Rambling
Just as the sum of our human anatomy creates a being of more significance than blood, flesh and bone, so too the rambling anatomy, all told, transcends mere walking.
The path is the ultimate symbol of this transcendence because, as you tread each footstep along your muddy, downtrodden mistress, you cannot fail to realise that you and she are one. You become the path you walk.
Let me explain. Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too.
The New River Path leads to Hertford. Anna and I have now become People Who Walked To Hertford, with all that entails: the smell of coots pecking over sludgy river waste; the sight of balloons slinking over the dawn-lit skyline; the sound of the M25 snarling beneath, while our river sneaks into open country; the taste of brackish water when I dunk my head into the Lea. We can never forget those experiences, they have changed us.
There is too an equal and opposite: the path becomes you who walk. Each step you take becomes part of the path, treading down the mud and leaves, marking out the track for the next generation of walkers.
Some paths are easy, well sign-posted, or even officially recognised by the asphalt of modernity; some paths are more difficult, sometimes impossible to distinguish from the wilderness that encroaches.
The path you choose will influence the paths that your successors will walk, just as the paths that your ancestors pioneered have influenced your walking.
I am obviously talking, not just literally, but metaphorically. Our choices about travel and life in general are profoundly affected by the choices of our ancestors and the rest of society; likewise our decisions consequently influence the options available to those yet to come. Our choices are not inert either; our choices are never means, they are always ends in themselves, whether we realise that fact or not.
My friend Simon Moore is doing something crazy, stupid and arduous.
With Maria Gallastegui, he is sailing in a sixteen-foot dinghy over three thousand miles, from London to Lebanon.
It’s hard to capture quite how crazy, stupid and arduous this is unless you’ve done something similar, which I haven’t. And that’s kind of the point of this article.
Within about five minutes of us waving Simon and Maria off back last July, they discovered that their boat had holes in.
Then they discovered that, actually, waves could get pretty big in the North Sea and, if they capsized now, they’d be dead.
It took them four days, beaten back each time by gales and high seas, to get around just one point in Kent. Then they faced the Channel crossing.
Limping into Calais port, more coastal storms “encouraged” them to change their plans, from sailing around the Atlantic coast, to navigating through France along the canals.
That change of plan meant, rather than filling their sails, they faced instead months of back-breaking rowing.
Some days, Simon told me, he didn’t want to eat or drink anything because he didn’t have the strength to build a fire.
When he left, Simon thought the whole journey might be over in six months. Six months later, like Odysseus returning from Troy, Maria and Simon face an Odyssey that might take years.
Simon has now returned to the UK for the winter, to recover and take stock, waiting for the better Mediterranean sailing conditions of spring.
He is also thinking of giving up.
When he told me this, I was shocked. Shocked, a little panicky and then confused.
I could understand why he would give up; as if the journey wasn’t dangerous enough, the spread of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon makes even the destination deadly.
Any sensible, rational algorithm would calculate risk, profit and loss and conclude abandonment of the project.
I could understand his doubts and his concerns and could not blame him for such a decision.
So why did I feel shock, panic and confusion? Why should I take his retirement personally?
Because, I realise, I was relying on Simon’s journey.
Facing down my personal daily struggles – publishing a book, fixing my bike, taking clothes to Calais – relied in some small way on knowing that he was out there doing something far more crazy, stupid and arduous.
And I realised that, as a society, we need people like Simon and Maria, sacrificing themselves to do crazy, stupid and arduous things.
Why? The Philosophy of Inspiration
The process of doing anything starts in your imagination, with the conception that it is possible.
Without the imagination, there can be no action.
That’s why the most reliable indicator of whether you’ll end up as a doctor is if someone in your family is… a doctor.
This is also one reason why rich or privileged folks are more likely to embark on ambitious projects: thanks to their elite education and lineage, they have witnessed that anything is possible.
They have an arrogance of potentialities; they do not doubt what they are capable of.
Camila grew up with that as a model: You dream something up and then make it happen.
Camila had written the business plan for Kids Company by the time she was fourteen.
The charity now helps 36,000 of the most vulnerable children in the UK with practical, emotional and educational support.
It wouldn’t have been possible – it wouldn’t have been even imaginable – if she hadn’t had her family’s lineage of imagination and action behind her.
You can’t do anything of which you can’t conceive; nor can you do anything you believe is impossible.
Camila Batmanghelidjh believed she could set up Kids Company because she’d experienced as a child that such things were possible.
I never considered a career in medicine because I had no conception that such a career was possible for me. I had no role models so it just wasn’t on my radar.
It might be illustrative to demonstrate how imagination turns into action with an example from my own life.
The Genealogy of an Adventure
Until 2009, I had no lineage of grand cycling adventures in my life. Bicycles were annoying machines that rusted in the garage and occasionally used to cycle two miles into town.
I had no conception that anyone could use them for adventures. My imagination for cycling extended as far as Wallingford and that was about it.
My parents did travel widely before I was born, hitch-hiking to Australia in the 1970s.
On Sunday evenings at home, to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes, they’d often show slides of their adventures in South America, my sister and I gazing in awe from the sofa.
But I didn’t connect cycling with such adventures until I stumbled across Alastair Humphreys at the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore Conference in 2008.
Alastair had recently finished cycling around the world, which is about as extreme a demonstration of the adventuring possibilities of the bicycle that you could hope for.
That conference marked the beginning of my imaginative lineage for cycling adventures.
The next year, I cycled to Bordeaux, followed by trips around Britain and then around Tunisia.
Each time, I stretched my imaginative conception of what was possible on a bicycle. As my imagination grew, I burst with new ideas and, gradually, I became able to turn those ideas into realities.
But none of my journeys would have been possible without the imaginative lineage I inherited from my parents and from Alastair Humphreys.
The Ripples of Transformative Stories
As a society, we need people like Alastair, Simon and Maria to do these crazy, stupid, arduous things because they are the ones who stretch our imagination and our conception of what is possible.
Everyone who comes into contact with Simon’s story now understands that such an audacious adventure is within their grasp.
Hearing Simon’s story forces us to confront an alternative reality, an alternative way of doing things.
We can’t ignore Simon’s journey precisely because it is crazy, stupid and arduous. It is a challenge to ourselves to overcome whatever struggles we are facing.
You cannot listen to Simon and go back to your life unchanged. He has given me the gift of an expanded imagination, an expanded reality, in the same way that my parents and Alastair Humphreys did.
Their stories are transformative; they force you to reconsider your conception of what you are capable of in life, in an instant.
That’s why journeys such as Simon’s are important to our society and that’s why I believe he should persevere.
Not for himself (although he will learn much from the journey), not for his charity Syrian Eyes (although they will benefit much from messages of solidarity and fundraising), but for the immeasurable millions of ripples his story will riffle through society.
Unbeknownst to him, Simon is transforming lives, opening minds, broadening imaginations. His arduous journey, his risking death, is not in vain; he offers us the gift of expanded imagination and a new perspective from which to examine our lives.
In this way, these kinds of journeys are a precious social service and it is a shame that they seem to be undervalued in our society.
Because their impact cannot be easily measured or monetised, these journeys are dismissed in value and left to people like Simon.
And people like Simon, if left without appropriate recognition of their positive impression on society, can get disheartened about their worth and think about giving up.
We must treasure these people; not worship, but treasure them. They do productive and inspirational work that is no less great for the fact that its impression is immeasurable.
Support them, share their experiences, spread their ripples. We need them.
I’m not saying that I’m going to rush off and sail to Lebanon, by the way, and I’m not saying that you should either. But I can never go back to believing that such a thing is impossible.
And, if sailing 3,500 miles in a dinghy is not impossible, then what else in my life is not impossible? What other potentials must I reassess? What else is my imagination capable of conceiving and making manifest?
We must not ignore or run from the audacity of our imagination. We must embrace it and surprise, delight and inspire the world.
UPDATE: Kids Company was dissolved in 2015 after the withdrawal of government funding and the support of major donors due to concerns over the charity’s financial management and a police investigation into allegations of child abuse.
A shocking denouement, but the story of the foundation of Kids Company is still illustrative of my point in this post. The police investigation found insufficient evidence of child abuse to meet the threshold for prosecution.
Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.
Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.
“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”
You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.
On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”
But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.
In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.
Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.
But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”
I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.
“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”
We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.
What can we do now?
If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.
BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!
This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!
I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!
I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.
The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.
(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)
But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.
Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.
I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.
It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.
After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.
NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.
Approach (0.25 pages)
This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.
Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)
A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.
Opening Remarks (1 page)
This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.
Concept (0.5 pages)
This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Technique (1 page)
General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.
The Narrative (3 pages)
This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!
Details (0.5 pages)
This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.
Conclusions (2.5 pages)
Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.
Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.
Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.
I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.
Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?
In short: Yes.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.
It’s raining even before we leave. My toes are already burning with cold, poking out of my sandals. It’s a midnight in March. The weather forecast is for rain until two or three o’clock in the morning. Heavy rain in places. We won’t arrive at the coast until six.
It’s the first Friday Night Ride to the Coast of 2014. For the last eight years, a group of cyclists have been gathering at Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner at midnight on a Friday, to cycle through the night to the coast. I’ve done this once before, to Felpham last August. But it wasn’t raining.
My feelings at the moment are: I don’t want to do this. I hate everything about this. I hate the fact that none of my friends are with me, the fact it’s cold, the fact it’s raining, the fact I went for a run this morning and my legs are already aching, the fact I didn’t bring more clothes, the fact that I cycled five miles to get to Wellington Arch and now we’re going to cycle five miles back the way I came to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the fact that I forgot to wear my cycling shorts.
There are more than fifty people on the ride and that means progress is slow, stopping every mile or two for everyone to catch up. Slow means cold, with nowhere near enough leg-pumping to warm me up. By London Bridge, my feelings are: How can I get out of this? I have plenty of excuses, starting with the fact that I’m freezing cold and wearing pneumoniac shorts and sandals. I’m also due to go on a road trip to Wales this morning – in just a few hours. I should be getting some sleep. And it’s hailing now, for fuck’s sake!
But none of these excuses are good enough. One of my friends is meeting me on the other side of the pollution-warmed Rotherhithe Tunnel – one of the glorious friends I have who are imaginative enough to see a night-ride in the rain as a good idea. She has even more excuses than I do not to come: she’s been working in Eastbourne all day, only got back to London a couple of hours ago and her cooker ran out of gas halfway through cooking a cycling-essential carbohydrate dinner.
So I keep going, for her sake.
The FNRttC (as it is known) is a superb idea: at midnight after work, meet up with some friends and cycle from the mucky city, through the mucky countryside, through the starlight, into the dawn, to the lung-balm coast and the sea. Have a swim and a full English breakfast, then take a lazy train back home. What better way to blast away the choke of the working week and begin an unforgettable weekend?
The FNRttC is a superb idea, but there’s one problem: other people. I’m sure someone enjoys crawling along in a peloton of fifty, but it’s not me. I want to stretch my legs and sprint against the hailstones – but I have to wait for the back-markers, the Tail End Charlies. The leader of the ride orders me to, “Drop back, young man!” when I dare to push up at the front. We have to wait at the bottom of London Bridge, we have to wait to be escorted through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. We have to wait and wait – and all in the rain. It’s miserable.
So, as soon as I meet up with Anna, we quit the ride and the hail and push our bikes into a chicken shop on the Barking Road. We order a couple of black teas and apologise for our puddles. It’s one o’clock in the morning and the only customers are garrulous drunks, astounded, admiring our audacity.
Over the brackish brew, we consider our options. Quitting is something I’d dearly love to do right now, but I can’t disappoint myself like that. Besides, Anna knows the way to Burnham-on-Crouch. We can go it alone, we can sprint into the night, we can throw off the shackles of organisation. It might sound strange to say that cycling all night from London to Burnham-on-Crouch is following the herd, but there were over fifty lycra-bonded white sheep that night and I have always been black. And hated lycra.
Organised rides might not be for me, but a thousand thanks to the FNRttC. Alone, I would never have had the audacity to even think I could pedal all night to the sea. Now, I am stealing your idea and taking it for myself, spreading it like jam across my life.
After five hours of cycling, the clouds roll away and I stare into the sunrise, into the eye of god and I swear to live: Why don’t I do this every night?
Before Christmas, I walked from London to Canterbury with a Polish girl and a dog called Stitch, sleeping in the rough and rain. I’ve been working on the book of the walk since then and I hope to have a first draft more or less complete by the end of next week. I hope, at any rate, that it’ll be finished before the pain of 70 miles of hard road has left my shins; I haven’t been able to walk properly for a couple of weeks now. Of course, the story is also very fragile at the moment and may yet never see the light of day, but I’m optimistic that it will, and that it will be worth the struggle.
All the best for a happy New Year, dear reader, and stay tuned for more…
This week, I’m mostly working on my book about cycling around Britain, provisionally titled ’58 Days’ because that is how long it took me. Hopefully, more imagination will be expended on the interior pages of the book…
In other news: I’ve rediscovered two almost books, which I hope to clean up and publish as soon as I’ve got ten minutes. Teasers: Dylan, Bicycles.
In further news: I’m going on a walk next week, to seek out the true meaning of Christmas. I shall be starting from The George in Lambeth and finishing at Canterbury Retail Park somewhere outside Canterbury. Provisional title: ‘The Canterbury Tales Retailed’.
There are a million and one lists of gear that the internet implores you to take on an epic bike ride. I’m not here to add to those mighty fine lists. I’m hear to tell you what to leave behind.
#1 Don’t take your 4×4.
1. A fancy bike. You don’t need it. I’ve cycled over 6,000 miles on my ‘entry-level’ hybrid city bike, everywhere from the Highlands of Scotland to the Sahara.
2. Fancy panniers. You don’t need them. What was good for the school run is probably good for starters.
3. A fancy cycle computer. Sure it’s nice to see the miles click over – but it’s also a massive pain in the ass. Keep your head up, looking at the scenery/traffic – not hunched over your speedo, trying to hit 20mph.
4. Fancy Lycra cycling shorts. You look like enough of a prat. Take a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, for Christ’s sake.
5. Shoes. Chances are where you’re going is gonna get wet at some point. Then you’ll thank me. Note: don’t go barefoot; you’ll bleed everywhere and that won’t be pretty. Wear sandals.
6. A tent, fancy or otherwise. Tents are heavy, man. Even fairly fancy ones. Take a bivvy bag. They roll up to the size of a jacket and they’ll keep you dry at night.
7. A gazillion spares and tools for repairing your bike. Chances are your frame won’t snap in half without any warning and any car mechanic can help you out with tools.
8. A library of maps. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where you’re going. Ask someone. Sure, take a compass if you have to.
9. A pile of money. Cycling is cheap. Sleeping in a bivvy bag is cheap. Beg, steal, borrow. Do whatever you have to do to get started. Once you’ve started, there’s no going back, sucker!
10. Any knowledge whatsoever. I took a one day course in bike mechanics before I left. The only thing I learnt from the session was that my bike was a death-trap and that I wouldn’t survive. To be fair to the instructors, they were correct about the first part – but thank god I didn’t listen to them!
That’s all there is to it.
Feel free to ignore all of these suggestions, especially if you love fancy kit. If you’re skint and just want to get started, then I hope I’ve reassured you: fancy kit is for show-offs.
“So what’s the most interesting country you’ve been to on your travels, David?”
If you travel often, you’ll recognise this tired impossible question. Tired and impossible to answer, that is, because the very idea of “travel” is absurd. Indulge me.
If Person A is in Place Z at Time 0, and then “travels”, he becomes Person A in Place Y at Time 1. Agreed? Good.
Now suppose that Person A is mortal: he has only 10 time units of life. Does it matter that at Time 4 he is in Place W? Or could he instead be in Place H? Or Place B?
Does it matter at all? No matter what he does, he will still be dead at Time 10.
But what if he remained his whole life in Place Z – wouldn’t that be boring?
Well, no, not necessarily. All places, like persons, are changing with time. Place Z at Time 0 is not the same as Place Z at Time 10.
You could say that Person A at Place Z at Time 0 is actually at place Z-0, when he moves to Time 1, he moves equally to Place Z-1.
There is nothing new or radical here. As Heraclitus put it, two and a half thousand years ago:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
But this is a truth that makes the very idea of “travel”, as movement from one place to another, absurd.
If, as Heraclitus and Jamiroquai suggest, I can be travelling without moving, then frantically launching myself across the planet is not uniquely “travel”; travel is simply the difference between today and tomorrow.
What is the difference between today and tomorrow?
First glance answer:
Today I am packing my bags in London; tomorrow I shall be on a beach in Mogadishu. Or: today I am at work; tomorrow I shall be relaxing with friends. Or: today I have to finish the finance spreadsheet; tomorrow I have a dentist’s appointment.
Nothing. Nothing, that is, except for the fact that one day I will run out of tomorrows.
Twenty-four hours will run equally through tomorrow, as they do today. Twenty-four hours in London is exactly the same as twenty-four hours in Mogadishu. The same hours, the same minutes, the same seconds: the same day.
Or, to put it in another, more cheerful manner: the same fraction of my life until death.
That might be the objective truth, but our first glance answer is a powerful instinct.
Our instinct is always to look forward to the beach at Mogadishu, to seeing friends, to the dentist’s appointment (or at least finishing the spreadsheet) – but this too is absurd.
What does it mean to be ‘looking forward’?
It means that you are valuing today’s hours at less than tomorrow’s (or Tuesday’s, or next week’s, or When I’m a Grown Up’s).
But we know that is absurd – the hours, as we have seen, are the same, the same fraction of life.
No matter how much you want to be in Mogadishu, or how much you want to see your friends, there is nothing you can do to make tomorrow come sooner; just as you can’t do anything to make tomorrow drag out over three days.
Tomorrow will happen tomorrow and only tomorrow.
Time is indifferent. This hour here and now has the same value as an hour in Mogadishu or with your friends.
You cannot put an arbitrary value on an indifferent hour, whether you want to or not.
There is no ‘best’ way to spend your time when time is spending you. All you can do is be conscious of this sand sliding through the hourglass and make the most of every conscious second.
It is absurd, complete nonsense, to talk about one hour being ‘better’ than another.
There is no ‘best’ hour, only an indifferent, amorphous spread of time between now and your death.
And of course, you can’t buy more seconds on the clock. There is no rich man’s clock with a thirteenth hour. Time is indifferent to your travails.
So why are we talking about travel?
You’ll have noticed that we’re not talking about travel, we’re talking about an attitude to life.
We started with travel – and I consider this to be an article about travel – because travel can often inspire a conscious attitude to the absurdities that we’ve discussed (the idea of “travel”, the instinct to look forward to tomorrow, the idea that there is a best way to spend your time).
Often when you travel, your mind opens wide and experiences are sucked in.
That is what it feels like to have a conscious attitude to life. That is what we are looking for. That is what we can use to laugh in the face of absurdity.
A Quick Warning: travel is one easy way to feel this attitude – but it is by no means a guarantee for it. A dullard in London is still a dullard in Lagos: the only difference is his sun burn.
Why are we conscious when we travel?
Because the simple act of jumping on a bike / train / ferry throws us outside our comfort zone.
Outside our comfort zone, our survival instinct pins our ears back, bugs our eyes, raises the hair on our skin. We don’t know what’s around the next corner – a tiger! – a snake! – a Tiger Snake!
If leaving our comfort zone is the surest route to consciousness, then you can see the problem with staying at home.
At home, our comfort zone is vast, like a great big sofa, sucking us in to watch endless re-runs of Miss Marple, where the Toff murderer always gets his or her comeuppance and order is restored in the form of a pillow-dribble nap.
Or is it? In truth, at home our comfort zone is much more nuanced.
If you will allow me to resort to infographics, I shall proceed to illustrate.
First, here is an infographic of your apparent comfort zone when you’re at home.
The blob in the middle is you, the bubble around you is your comfort zone and ‘consciousness’ is what floats beyond the bubble.
In order to reach it, we have to burst that bubble (stick with it).
Next is an infographic of your comfort zone when you are travelling. Consciousness comes easily because everything is new and potentially threatening.
But the reality is much more nuanced. There is no one comfort zone. There is a comfort zone for everything you do, from cooking to chatting up Tiger Snakes.
In truth, consciousness is more easily reached than you think from your sofa. It just takes a little imagination – and a dollop of bravery – to get there.
But there is a further benefit to breaking your comfort zone at home: the more bubble you have to burst to get to consciousness, the deeper your learning.
If a concert pianist had stopped as soon as he felt comfortable with Greensleeves, he wouldn’t have made it. He kept bursting that bubble, from positions of greater and greater comfort in relation to Greensleeves.
Serial travellers run the risk of keeping their comfort zones small, burning off the buzz of easy consciousness.
Travel, then, is by no means the only way you can access this attitude of consciousness – you can use meditation, music, maths, Matalan – anything that draws you in.
And what you’ll find in this attitude is the infinity of everything.
Note: We are slowly rolling around to the main argument of this post. Apologies for the lengthy premise, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by jumping straight into unsubstantiated conclusions.
So what is the infinity of everything?
As far as humans can ever experience, everything is infinite.
The complexity of interactions and the fourth dimension of time, when combined with the five senses, language, thought and the simple three dimensions means that everything can be experienced in an infinite number of ways, an infinite number of times (if only we had infinite lives).
You don’t need to go to the Algarve (or the polar ice caps, or the Amazon) to experience something new.
Something new is happening on the back of your right hand, right now. The cellular activity of your epidermis is infinite. You could (and people do) dedicate your entire life to such investigations.
If you are infinite, it follows that other people are infinite.
The man sitting opposite you on the train to Hayes is as infinite as a camel driver in Cairo, as infinite as a Michelin-starred chef in Paris, as infinite as a Japanese polar explorer.
In fact, on a practical level, you are more likely to be able to delve into his infinity and actually share something because you probably also share a common fluent language with the man from Hayes.
And yet people (myself included, often) tend to dismiss the exotic of their familiar surroundings.
We are gravely mistaken, because the truth is that the more you know of something, the more fascinated you become with it.
Think of two secondary school kids reeling off reams of data on Premier League footballers. The most boring topic known to man – and yet their eyes are alive with the thrust and revelation of shared depth.
Yes, the Premier League is infinite as well, and the more familiar you become with its infinity, the more fascinated you become in its nuance, in its depth – in its apparent mundanity.
As with the Premier League and our man from Hayes, so too with Jiskairumoko, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service and the collected works of Françoise Mallet-Joris (to pick three random topics from Wikipedia).
The infinity of everything – so what?
The infinity of everything is an attitude, an attitude to absurdity that will help you defeat the Looking Forward to Tomorrow demons.
If everything is infinite, then everything is infinitely interesting. Whatever happens today is as interesting as whatever will happen tomorrow.
The infinity of everything will help you confront the absurdity that, even after all your efforts, the seconds will indifferently pass until you die.
If you confront that truth with an absurd smile, then you will have won a moment of freedom.
That freedom will only come when you realise that tomorrow will be no different to today; no better, no worse.
It will only come when you realise that there is no different to here; no better, no worse.
The only difference between today and tomorrow; between here and there is that you are here, today.
Your attitude to life must take account of those ineluctable facts; you must make the most of here and today.
Beware society’s hierarchy of experience!
Unfortunately, despite all our efforts here towards equality of experience, person and place, society still likes to imprint a hierarchy on everything, even travel.
Everyone acts as if a desert safari in the Empty Quarter beats camping in Oxfordshire. When we do this, we are wrong.
I feel the pressure of this hierarchy as much as anyone, but by now, we all know that one place is as good as another: time passes equally (and death encroaches equally) whether you’re in Shanghai or Salcombe.
What matters is your attitude to the passing of time and your attitude should be the same whether you’re in Teignmouth or Timbuktu.
So if you take one thing from this article, please take this: it is absurd to hope that travel in far-flung climes will be somehow ‘better’ than travel closer to home – even AT home.
We are all rushing through life at the same incredible speed: one second per second and the way we spend those seconds has got nothing to do with where we spend them.
Everything is infinite, so the more you see of a place, the more you realise how little you have seen of it and the deeper you fall down the rabbit hole.
That is why, when I’m asked, “What’s the most interesting country you’ve been to on your travels?” I can easily reply: Britain.
(Coming soon never: Part Two, in which I leave my desk.)
The only signs that someone has been here before us are bird prints in the sand and a discarded washing machine. Trudging mud tracks here, through brushwood and whipping growling tearing underwood. The sun is sitting on a hill of scrubbed trees. Clouds push and pull themselves into streaks and whips. Abandoned boats tug the shoreline, resting to be used. A skiff scuds the surface, sculling past. We take our place on gravel beach, the sound of the road opposite a white noise from a far far away world.
Two fishermen are hunting into hiding. A dragonfly helicopters past our tent at night, a huge hanging thing of wings and tail. Wasps thrive on our trashy sweetness. An oil drum rolls on the shore, waiting for a fire or flotation. Cork driftwood litters the gravel, playfully begging a seating. Roots poke up through the floor, between the shards of glass. A jerry can of plastic sits on our gravel beach, with tin can lids and a discarded boat seat, shoved into a hole. There’s a hole in the ground: fill it with rubbish, sandals torn at the toe.
A rower pulls her way past at fifteen strokes per minute, coursing the multicoloured lake, from white-frozen ice to deepest darkest blackest black. She rows into silhouette, a Baskerville barks at her. Dogs in the shallows shake off spray, which mists around them in the low-light like the halos of mystical hounds.
Tranquillity splendours over the lake, where electricity pylons hang. Mountains range, back-layering the scene, trees and television towers. The sun bleeds into the sky. The two fishermen will be joined in the night-time by trance music and a female. Mating will be performed, doubtlessly.
The lake little laps at my feet, dusty rocks beneath my behind and sand under my tread. The roll of the road and the wind in the leaves of the trees blow like static. Ripples ripple on the lake, broken by the ducking dive of the fish, sometimes a plip of a plop, sometimes an almighty splash of leviathan. A wasp bothers my typewriter. The moon curves and daggers into the tree horizon, its mirror in the lake slipping to the shoreline. I smell Egypt, the freshwater seaside, broad water, blowing with the wind-waves: your way, my way.
in 152 episodes on hitchhikingbritain.com (Now discontinued).
I called this experiment Slow Publishing, for obvious reasons (it should take about a year for the whole book to trickle onto the blog). I had very low expectations, especially as I had no time for promotion – but how is it going?
Well, I’ve been publishing three episodes a week since the 23rd of July, so we’re up to Episode 16 now (about halfway through Chapter One). I’ve had over 600 visitors in total since the start and I can count on 15-20 people reading each instalment, plus 9 people have signed up to the ‘Soles’ RSS webfeed.
In terms of conversion, I’ve sold 10 copies of the e-book on Amazon, 1 copy on the istore and 1 copy of the paperback. I’ve made about £16.43 in royalties from these sales.
The only promotion I’ve done has been one email to my good friends at the start of the project, plus notifications of new episodes sent to my twitter and Facebook accounts.
I’m hoping that some promotion will start to trickle in from my readers. I’ve already had my first 5-star review on Amazon, from which I quote here:
The Soles of My Shoes is an erudite, eloquent and warm book. A deceptively simple tale of a long weekend spent hitchhiking with an unrequited love-of-his-life, the protagonist reveals insights into love, life, class, wealth and what it is to travel… I left this book wanting (a) to climb Ben Nevis and (b) to go hitchhiking. Possibly to visit Scarp as well… Highly recommended.
Well I don’t think £16.43 is too bad for a month’s work. True, all my friends who are likely to buy the book, probably have. But that just means that any sales from now on will have been earned. I’ll post another update here in a month or two and we’ll see.
But, for now, I like the idea that the internet is never closed for business and people are stumbling upon my book while I sleep. ‘The Soles of My Shoes’ will never be out of print and, who knows, perhaps in fifty years I’ll be drawing my pension from between its e-pages.
What inspires you? What do you admire in other people? What do you want to achieve?
I ask myself these questions all the time and the answer is always the same – at the risk of sounding like an idiot – awe and the awesome.
Warning: Much of this article is going to sound like a cheap Dale Carnegie knock-off. Sorry about that.
The awesome (according to the OED definition) inspires in us “a reverential wonder combined with an element of latent fear”. Hemingway on a fishing boat in the terrible sublimity of a storm – “The Old Man and the Sea”.
The day I left to cycle around Britain, that metaphysical “element of latent fear” had a very physical grip on my bowels. I had never done anything like this before. I was scared of my bicycle, a six-gear second-hand Raleigh with a proclivity for catastrophe. I was scared of my knees, which were about as strong as the hinges on our bathroom door. I was scared of my camping arrangements, which (in my imagination) involved ditches and shotgun-wielding farmers. But most of all, I was scared of the weather.
In some ways it was a typical English summer’s day, in other ways it was Hemingway’s sea-storm. The clouds were bursting in freakish pressure drop rainstorms every few hours and I sat in my friend’s kitchen for hours, clinging to my cup of tea as if it were a lifebuoy, prolonging the fear. This was the classic fear of the unknown. This was the fear that made me certain the whole trip would be worthwhile.
I did (eventually) overcome my fear, I did (eventually) leave my friend’s kitchen, I did (inevitably) get soaked in a rainstorm and I did (surprisingly) realise that rain isn’t so bad, but fear made it so.
Incidentally, I found that rain, more than any other weather, can provoke a whole range of powerful emotions: anger, hatred, depression and joy, as well as fear. It is emotion that bends our mind’s response to weather, not the weather itself. Once I realised that, I could bend my mind back again to something more positive. Sometimes.
Stop: The last thing I want to do here is write a puff-piece, showing-off about how great the journey was, about how great I am and how I did this and that and the other. I’m not kidding anyone: it was nothing more than a long bike ride. I didn’t have any good reason for the trip: I didn’t raise money for charity, I didn’t give talks in schools about sustainable transport, I wasn’t even going to write a book about it. I did it for myself alone. It was the cycling equivalent of a two-month asphyxiwank: pain and pleasure in equal measure for no discernible purpose. So, instead of writing about me and my bike ride, I’m going to try and explain why I did it.
For people who don’t know what I’m talking about, some background: this summer I cycled from London to London via Scotland, the Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, the Lake District, Wales, Cornwall and just about every point in between. I went through two bicycles, three baskets and about four thousand calories a day. I slept most nights in a bivvy bag, got a bad-ass tan and am now as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. It took me 58 days and cost way more money than I expected.
So: why did I cycle 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain? Because awe told me to.
There was one other reason as well. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair amount. I’ve travelled all across Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia, but only very rarely in the UK. It got to the point where I knew Cairo better than I knew any place in the UK, bar London and the environs of my South Oxfordshire birth-place. That had to change, but awe was the main reason why I did it.
Bear with me, please, while I talk about awe for a bit. The explanation of why comes at the end.
I think cycling is a good thing. It saves you money, it saves you time and it gets you fit. But the general idea of cycling somewhere is not awesome to me. For me, there’s no awe to be had in cycling down to New Cross. There might be fear – of the traffic, for example – but there’s no awe. I’m not struck dumb with wonder at my achievement when I step off the bike at Kismet Supermarket. I could imagine being awed by someone else cycling to New Cross – if they pedalled with their hands, say – but, because I’ve cycled that kind of distance thousands of times since I learnt to ride a bike, it’s no longer awesome for me. It might have been awesome when I was six, but not now.
This tells us two things: that awe is personal to us and that awe never stays still. My awesome isn’t your awesome and my past awesomes are no guide to my future awesomes. On the day of departure, sitting in my friend’s kitchen with a cup of tea, I was still awed by the prospect of cycling around Britain. I was probably still awed by it right up until I made it back to Sanford, gradually growing in confidence as I went. Now it is a past awesome, something I’m proud of, but not something that I’d be awed into doing again.
So here’s the why of the trip: somehow I picked up the crazy idea of cycling around the country. It was nothing more than that: a crazy idea. But the idea stuck. And the more I thought about it, the more it filled me with awe. The feeling is at least two-parts terror to one-part wonder and manifests itself as a tingling sensation in my balls (I’m sure there’s a female equivalent). And I know that, when I get this feeling, my future will be nothing more than a series of craven apologies if I don’t act on it. If I’d just cycled to New Cross, I wouldn’t be writing about it on this blog. It doesn’t interest me. Awesome, on the other hand, does.
Note: I’m not saying you should think I’m awesome, by the way. Like I said, awesome is personal, it’s all relative. Now I’ve done it, I myself wouldn’t be awed by someone who’s cycled around Britain. And even if you’ve never done anything like this, maybe you couldn’t give a toss. Maybe you reckon it was a shocking waste of time and money. That’s fine. This is about your personal awesome, not mine.
Inspiration, admiration and achievement are all connected and they are all connected by your own personal definition of awesome. You are inspired by awesome things. You admire people who do awesome things. And awesome, because of its fear-inducing properties, is always an achievement.
Not all achievements are awesome, of course. Achievement is simply what happens when you overcome a barrier. Driving a car, for me, is no longer an achievement. It’s easy. I can never unlearn it, as much as I might wish to. It has become automatic, and an automatic action is never an achievement to the person doing the doing. When I was seventeen, driving was definitely an achievement – hell, getting the damn thing out of the garage was a bloody achievement! There’s got to be some sort of barrier to an achievement – and the awesome is always blocked by the biggest barriers.
Believe it or not, there is an ugly brute of a barrier sitting right in front of me on my desk: a humble pot plant. The man who sold it to me told me that I should re-pot it soon, otherwise it will suffocate and die. That was two weeks ago. It’s not that I’ve been too busy, it’s just that I’ve never re-potted a plant before: a nasty little barrier. But if I can overcome that barrier (before the plant dies, ideally), then I’ll be as contented as anything: I will have achieved something worth achieving.
Now I’m not saying that re-potting a plant is awesome, but if you ratchet up that achievement, from re-potting the plant on my desk up to, say, planting a new forest in the City of London, there is a point at which the task becomes so daunting, the barrier to achievement so high, that it can be called awesome.
That point will be different for everyone, of course. We all have different barriers at different heights. This is why even our greatest heroes can have heroes themselves, even Bob Dylan has Woody Guthrie. In the 1950s, Woody had already achieved young Bob’s vision of awesome, so he won his admiration as well. The best news about this is that it’s a virtuous circle. Woody inspired Bob to achieve awesome for himself, and he in turn has inspired generations of singer-songwriters to do the same (for better or worse). By following your inspiration and overcoming your barriers, you become an inspiration yourself.
More good news: awesome isn’t necessarily difficult and in many cases it is laughably achievable.
There are a lot of things we don’t do simply because we’ve never done them before, like me and my suffocating pot plant. This is easy awesome territory. There are also a lot of things we don’t do because we’re frightened of them for no good reason. For me: making money, meeting strangers, falling in love or facing a crowd. It follows that I’m not very good at these things because I’m scared to try. But the truth is that there’s nothing inherently difficult about meeting strangers. If I could only overcome my pathetic social-fear barrier, I could pick up a pretty easy awesome, by making a few friends, or even by falling in love.
But there’s another kind of awesome as well, the kind of awesome that pushes something you are already very good at. We’ve had easy awesome, so let’s call this one epic awesome. For me: to go from writing novels in my bedroom to selling best-sellers in Hollywood. In many ways, this is the most productive strain of awesome. This is the way cures for cancer are found, the way revolutions change regimes, the way cooperatives are built.
But don’t underestimate the power of the easy awesome and doing something for the first time. I will never cycle one hundred miles in a day for the first time ever again. I will never free-wheel downhill at 43.2 mph for the first time ever again. I will never sleep rough for the first time and have a slug splat across my face for the first time ever again.
That first time breaks the barriers. It is a dopamine rush that we spend the rest of our lives pursuing, but will never recapture. It is the inspiration that drives further achievement. The first time opens up worlds. I can never go back to a time when I didn’t play guitar, when I didn’t write lyrics to silly songs and make even sillier videos for them. Now I can never go back to a time when I wasn’t a round Britain cyclist. The first time makes possibilities possible. Now I can plan more long-distance cycle trips, I can look at a map of Scandinavia and think: “Yes, that is possible.”
That first time also pushes our threshold of awe further forward. I’ll have to go further and deeper to find my next cycling awesome. However, this constantly moving threshold of awe means that it’s also very easy to become blind to our own awesomeness.
Cautionary tale: A couple of thousand miles into my four thousand mile trip, I was totally inured to the awesomeness of cycling seventy or eighty miles in a day. In fact, I was feeling a little down that I was barely halfway and I’d already been going for a month. That evening, I met some Swiss girls in a hostel in Oban and we chatted, as you do, about our respective travels. I was awed to hear that they’d been working for six months in Glasgow, thousands of miles from their homes, to learn a foreign language, English. But they were equally astounded that I’d cycled sixty miles that day. To me, it seemed a bit on the low side, but their awe allowed me to reflect on what I’d done so far and I was able, once more, to enjoy my achievement. It can be hard to feel our own awesomeness when we are always pushing for more.
Living the Awesome Life
Awesome burns memories deep into your hippocampus. You never forget awesome. I stopped for dinner one evening at an eco-hostel in East Yarde in Devon and I got chatting to the owner, another David. He told me about a cycle trip he’d done from Beijing, through Tibet, all the way to India. His eyes shone and his beard bristled as he talked about cycling through paddy fields, crossing the Himalayas and escaping from the Chinese secret police. It was as if he’d just got back that morning, so I asked him when it was: 1986. He hadn’t done another trip since, but he said that never a day goes past without him thinking about that cycle ride twenty-five years ago. It still inspires him, a well-spring of joy that will never run dry.
This story probes deeper into the nature of awesome. Why did this other David not feel the need to go on another cycle trip? The answer is that a trip like cycling through China, or cycling around Britain, is discrete. It has a very defined beginning and end. It is a wonderful learning experience, but it shouldn’t be confused with life. Chinese cyclist David made his trip, learnt his lessons and kept his memories, but his life is dedicated to sustainable tourism. This is his life’s epic awesome, the awesome that others benefit from, the awesome that will be left behind in other people’s memories. This sort of awesome is built gradually. Not every day can be escaping from Chinese secret police.
By following life-goals that provoke feelings of fear and wonder, like setting up a sustainable eco-hostel in the nowhere of Devon, you will be living the awesome life. And, by living the awesome life every day, like this other David, awesome achievements will naturally follow. You will astonish yourself and become an inspiration to others.
Never forget that you might be blind to your own awesomeness. Just living here on Sanford puts you into a bracket of awesome that most people won’t have the fortune of experiencing – unless you spread the good news.
For me, amazing isn’t enough any more. I want awesome.
* If you want an idea of how far 4,110 miles is, take a plane from Heathrow to New Delhi, in India. Or, if you prefer, to Chicago in the US. It’s far. If I’d cycled east instead of in a circle, I would have made it to Iran.
If anyone is planning a cycle trip and wants to discuss the practicalities and psychologies of long-distance cycling, then please get in touch.
Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.
Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.
1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:
2. Tinned tuna:
There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.
But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.
I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?
Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.
These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.
Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.
The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.
Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.
I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.
Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:
Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.
Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.
Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:
When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:
The Tunisian pasty:
And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:
Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.
Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.
One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.
Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.
These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.
Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:
And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:
Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:
When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!
Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.
And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.
But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:
A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.
So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.
Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.
Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.
It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. My previous post demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here.
Since Monday, I have spoken to actual Tunisians, both in person and online, to find out more about the background to the protests and to ascertain how much support there is “on the street” for the protesters.
First, though, the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis’ main transport arteries.
It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) – and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration was permitted is certainly a step up from the days of Ben Ali.
So far, so reasonable.
(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march – were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles…)
That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?
To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally).
One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me and reiterated: it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.
Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics – and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.
One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer, told me that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can’t disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they were friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police – so of course the police attacked back.
I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids – teenagers – certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.
Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say, it is followed by a counter-protest and then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.
Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses not to change anything, not to make things more liberal, not to give the people more democracy. In other words: their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba – “A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!”
This man’s frustration was palpable – and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society. Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign tourists are going elsewhere, draining away the 7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.
On reflection, it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. I have written before about Tunisia’s relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors: jobs, for example.
On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It’s natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it’s not unexpected that the average man on the street disapproves the protests.
Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of Tunisian society. Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration – particularly as protests in London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I have never been tear-gassed in London).
But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women, men and children. I was particularly taken by a group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.
I set against this conclusion also that I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood. Ennahda strenuously denies that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened. So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters should or shouldn’t be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba – so reminiscent of the actions of Ben Ali – prove to me that there is something in the protesters’ grievance.
Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday were ex-government (Ben Ali’s government, that is) and some were from the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was an explosion at the Hotel Africa on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.
What we do know is that, since the broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.
The above is all I learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now I shall give my impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means.
My impression was that the protesters went one step too far. They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive – the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so optimistic that it could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn’t used their weapons.
If the protest had been small – perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market – and if they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the police would have allowed us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy – but static and merely symbolic – protest.
But the protesters pushed too far. The police couldn’t keep rolling back and retreating – they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it. The tragic but inevitable outcome was running battles in the streets.
(A side note: I don’t think you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant. The police couldn’t accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn’t back down either.)
But supposing the police had let us march to the Ministry of Interior – what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered.
But the police couldn’t let that happen. They couldn’t allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians and widespread panic.
I am not naive, however. There is a strong chance that the protesters wouldn’t have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that the protest would have escalated and swelled beyond control.
But perhaps therein lies the real reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps the government and the police fear a second revolution to follow the first, as happened in Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.
I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of my business. But I believe one thing is certain: the actions of the police on Monday – and let’s not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal – have made a second uprising only more likely.
Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people – you would have thought 2011 had shown that eloquently enough.
I was walking around the central market in Tunis this morning, when I passed by a peaceful march. They carried banners proclaiming: “Never forget why they died – Freedom and Dignity”. The marchers were young and old, women, men and children, wearing smiles with their flags. So, being in full support of marches in general and this sort of march in particular, I joined them.
We marched on past the central market and across Habib Bourguiba – the main street in central Tunis. There, the police carefully chaperoned us across the road and to the headquarters of one of the unions, where we stopped.
That, I thought, was that. The chanting stuttered and ceased. Some people left the crowd, which was only ever about 50-60 people, others stood around amiably, chatting and smoking, leaning on their signs, wrapped in their banners.
I asked one of the men what this was all about. He explained that today was Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia and that these people were unhappy with progress after the revolution. That seemed fair enough and I was about to leave when a journalist tapped me on the shoulder. He added that the group intended to march down Habib Bourguiba street, but that protests there had recently been banned. This sounded more interesting.
Still, though, the protest didn’t look like much. There were no angry young men – from their dress, I reckoned it was just a small group of liberal middle-class Tunisians. Then, without a signal, we started from the union building to Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of the police presence and the banning order.
But our fifteen minute pause at the union building seemed to be a tactic because, when we got back to Habib Bourguiba, the police didn’t seem to be expecting us. No one stopped us until we got to the cathedral, where a hasty line of police barred our way. Our small, timid group was kettled and, as always in Tunisia, a crowd gathered to watch the events. I slipped outside the kettle, to look on with them.
The crowd around me grew and grew, curious Tunisians come to watch the action. Or so I thought. Then, suddenly, as if a sprint-race starter’s pistol had sounded, a great chanting rose up from the crowd of bystanders. They turned as one and started to march towards the clock tower that marks the centre of Tunis. These were no bystanders – this was the march! I cackled with glee when I realised that our small, timid group of kettled friends were merely a decoy for the police.
And with whistles and chants and defiance, we marched on and on. The protesters broke through three lines of police, the first barred our way with linked arms, the second with riot shields and the third with batons and tear-gas canisters. Or at least, we broke through until the tear gas was fired and the batons were beaten. Then we ran.
Men, women and children burst out around me, staggering under the clouds of gas, stampeding at the cracking of the batons on helmets and the canisters’ explosions.
Down the street and around the corner, people hacked up poisoned phlegm into the gutters and damped their eyes with handkerchiefs. The shops and restaurants hurriedly pulled down their shutters, dragging customers and bystanders inside for shelter.
We could hear the shouts from the police, hear more gas canisters fired, hear more baton cracks. I saw a mini-van of plain-clothed thugs arrive with white cudgels to beat and maim, to disperse the crowds with fear. Police, all in black, wore balaclavas – to protect themselves from their own tear-gas, or to hide their identities?
Gradually, Habib Bourguiba cleared of protesters. All that was left were shopkeepers peering out behind shutters, dazed, angry civilians and bewildered tourists. The occasional running police, the occasional beating. But the real action had shifted to the side streets, where kids were throwing stones at police, getting tear-gas in return. The kids then flee, chased by the cops, hopelessly.
But what is the meaning of all this meaningless violence? What does this demonstration of freedom mean for the protesters? What does this demonstration of force mean for the police?
I spoke to one young Tunisian school-teacher who was frustrated with the protesters. He said that they had freedom now, but they didn’t know how to use it. He said that people were asking for rights that were not important – like people with jobs asking for better jobs, or people with salaries asking for bigger salaries – when there are people without jobs, without money, without homes or food.
This young man said that Tunisia needed security and that the current government couldn’t provide it. He stopped short of saying that Ben Ali could, but it was implied. He looked forward to going to London, to get a job there.
But the marchers are not merely gluttons for freedom. That much was demonstrated by the very nature of the government’s response to them. Some of these people had walked for six days from the town of Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the dead of the 2011 revolution.
Today was Martyrs’ Day and any free country would accept and commemorate with the marchers the tragic loss of life under the old, despotic regime.
But instead they were met by a banning order that made their march illegal, then found their way blocked by lines of police and finally were brutally attacked with tear-gas and batons.
The louage driver slaps my hand and gives me a toothy smile. “Ahh, 2011!” he says, then gives me directions to the giant hand-cart.
I’m in Sidi Bouzid. It’s a town in central Tunisia. A working town, like any other. It reminds me of Sfax, only smaller and with zero tourists and zero tourist appeal.
Except for one rather odd monument.
A statue of a fruit and vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid.
In 2010, a streetseller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a government building in Sidi Bouzid. Whatever the truth of his grievance, it was enough to spark riots. These riots blossomed into revolution. And this revolution evolved, mutated and spread: most dramatically into Egypt, most violently into Libya and most notoriously in Syria, where civil war is still bleeding.
So this is the post you’ve all (probably) been waiting for: the revolution one. I’ve waited this long because I didn’t want to make any snap judgements and because I wanted to wait until I’d come to the place where it all began: Sidi Bouzid.
Mohamed Bouazizi: a proud portrait on a rather battered post office.
On the other hand, I could have waited forever to write this post because, frankly, there is no judgement I can make that won’t be so bereft of truth as to be called empty. I’m an outsider, I don’t know what Tunisia is really like after the revolution. I can only say what I see.
I did go to Tunisia while it was still under Ben Ali, in 2008, but that was also only for a month. You can’t get more than a vague sense of a place in a month. So I’m comparing vague sense with vague sense in this post. Furthermore, I have a real problem collecting evidence. The evidence of my own eyes is almost totally without context and the evidence given by others, by Tunisians or by expats, is hard to filter.
These caveats given, I shall proceed with my judgement: what is Tunisia like after the revolution?
Better placed than me to comment on post-revolution Tunisia: a curious tortoise.
Tunisia post-revolution is a democracy. Under Ben Ali, it was also a democracy. The only difference is that now more than one political party is allowed. Ha.
Democratic elections were held comparatively quickly after the revolution, in October 2011, and the current government is dominated by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. Ennahda recently announced that the first clause of the Tunisian constitution should remain as it is: in other words, they will not be introducing Sharia (Islamic religious) law. The constitution still demands, however, that the president be a Muslim (a feature shared by 98% of the population).
That there was some doubt as to the future of Sharia law in Tunisia is something I have encountered on my trip. In Sousse, I ran into a Salafist rally held on the walls of the old medina. It was startling to see the infamous black and white flags of hardline Islamism flying over the moderate Tunisian skyline. And the locals seemed about as taken aback as I was, with many of them taking photos or film, like tourists.
Salafi flags over the medina in Sousse.
These rallies have been held all over the country, including one of 10,000 in Tunis. But even so, I met a chap who told me that of the 10 million people in the country, perhaps as many as 9.5 million opposed the Salafis. At the rally in Sousse, there were about 200 people and about fifty of them were shouting themselves hoarse in support of the speakers. The women were segregated, although not especially effectively – I saw a slightly bewildered fat white man in a baseball cap emerge from the tightly packed women in full Islamic dress. The rally was bossed by heavyset men in smart cropped beards, many wearing khaki military waistcoats and jackboots. It’s the kind of dress code I recognise from BNP rallies in the UK.
So the question of Sharia law has been answered for the moment, but for how long? The young man I spoke to in Sousse was utterly disbelieving that such a thing could ever happen in Tunisia. But the truth is that Islamist parties now have a legal platform on which to stand in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, they were effectively silenced. It remains to be seen whether, allowed the freedom to campaign, they will be rejected or whether their calls for religious law will be heard sympathetically, as an effective alternative to Western political and economic domination.
“Stay standing, people of Tunisia – everyone is proud of you.”
Two anecdotal changes post-revolution are a reduction in litter collections (litter was already a huge problem in 2008, this makes things worse) and an increase in petty thieving – the ‘catastrophes’ my motocycle chaperone talked about. I myself have noticed two further changes regarding freedom of information: the newspapers are no longer filled with Ben Ali’s fat face and the internet browser I’m currently using has hardcore porn saved as a bookmark.
One post-revolution change that I can certainly attest to is the massive drop in tourist numbers in Tunisia. I’ve met about a dozen other tourists, hotels have been almost totally empty and, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here during Tunisian spring holidays, I’d have felt very alone at times.
There are hopes that this summer will see an increase of tourists compared to last year – but last year was a disaster. Tourism accounts for 7% of the Tunisian economy and in 2011 tourist numbers were down over 30%. That means 3,000 jobs lost. That means more people like Ali and Walid taking to hard drink.
In Sidi Bouzid, there are still streetsellers peddling their carts, there are still beggers outside the mosque, the cafes and streetsides are still packed with young men smoking and old men slapping down cards or dominoes, under- or un-employed. Mohamed Bouazizi’s market still runs, selling post-revolutionary fruit – appetites ignore politics. And of course there’s still the governor, the police and the Garde Nationale, but they’re on our side now, aren’t they?
The infamous government building. The blue banner reads: ’17th December Tunisian revolution of freedom and dignity.’
Turning to more optimistic matters, I think there is an essay to be written about graffiti and freedom. There probably already has been. People graffiti when they are no longer scared and there is definitely more graffiti in Tunisia, post-revolution. Most of it is basic paintwork slogans, like ‘EST’ – a reference to Esperance Sportive de Tunis, one of the big football clubs here. But I have seen more political slogans, most memorably ‘Fuck the police’ (not, I presume, solely a reference to NWA) and ‘Ben Ali a l’enfer’ – ‘Ben Ali go to hell’.
Around the revolutionary monument in Sidi Bouzid, there is more peaceful, commemorative graffiti. It has been left untouched, despite decorating the walls of the local police station and the notorious government building outside which Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight.
Revolution, liberty, blah, blah, blah.
It should be said in conclusion, to echo my comments at the start of this post, that no conclusion, no judgement is final. Tunisia is still in the delicate phases of post-revolution. One point of note, though, is that these phases have been calmer than those in Libya or even in Egypt. Perhaps this is a sign that Tunisia has more to lose than these other countries. Perhaps it is a sign that, despite the oppressions of Ben Ali’s government, in general things were not so bad.
For a country situated between Algeria and Libya on the continent of Africa, Tunisia is well-developed, well-educated and the people here have it better than many. Tunisia has a literacy rate of 88.9%, compared to Egypt’s 66.4%. Tunisian GDP per capita is $4,200, while in Egypt it is only $2,700. Tunisia might not have the raw wealth of oil-rich Libya, but it does have a society worth preserving, seen in the friendly smiles of the people I pass on my bicycle.
The very least that can be said of the revolution is that power is no longer coalesced in one man, as it was in Ben Ali and in Habib Bourguiba before him. A servant to his country until the very end, Ben Ali fled the revolution for Saudi Arabia, charged with corruption, theft, money laundering and drug trafficking.
A grave is sacrosanct. A graveyard, hundreds of individual lives marked by their death, even more so. But most sacred of all are the ruins of an ancient city. These ruins are also a graveyard, not of individual lives, but of an entire civilisation.
The cemetary of a civilisation. Sbeitla, Tunisia.
Graves and graveyards are for remembering. They’re not just convenient places to put dead bodies, away from the living. A gravestone remembers a life after the body is decayed. For the survivors, it is a reminder of the person who lived.
But after a couple of generations that gravestone no longer reminds anyone of the person who lived, but instead inspires an awe of brevity, how important each moment is and how irrelevant. It teaches us that there is something beyond ourselves, a future in which we are long forgotten. That is the power of just one gravestone.
An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetary of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.
In hundreds or thousands of years archaeologists and historians will pick over the bones and stones of our ruins. And it will take hours of scholarly argument for these archaeologists and historians to decide something so simple to us as how the twenty-first century toilet evacuated its waste. To us, it’s almost natural to press down on a lever after we’ve taken a shit. But imagine the future philologist’s delight when he discovers that the contemporary technical word was “flush“.
So imagine the civilisation that’s vanished here. Look at these Roman baths, look at the plumbing under the floor. Can you imagine how it worked?
Roman baths, showing the underfloor heating. Or so we’re told.
Or can you recreate this Roman olive press? Would you even know it was a olive press if I hadn’t told you (and if I hadn’t been told)?
A what? Looks like a bird bath to me.
Can you imagine what the forum was like? Not that it was a market place, where people traded goods, but how people behaved here. What did Romans talk about? The three temples that stand at the head – what went on there? Were people allowed to sit on the steps to watch the hubbub below? Did children play hide and seek among the columns? Or was Roman discipline so tight that they wouldn’t dare?
The Forum. Home to a market and a civilisation.
Once you start interrogating the stones like this, it’s endless. Were the roads smooth, or unevenly paved like today? Did they have problems with litter? Did the citizens greet each other in the street, like in modern Tunisia, or walk on by, heads held down like in London? Who was the best tailor in the city? The best butcher, baker, candlestickmaker?
Where were the rough ends of town, where the footpads and cutpurses roamed? Did old men sit outside their doors and fall asleep in the sun? Were there rats? Or, intriguingly: did they build a museum to an even older civilisation?
These things would have been known and understood from birth by everyone who lived in this city. But we have no idea, no clue whatsoever, we can only guess. Not only their houses and baths are destroyed, but their customs, their habits, their fashions are also gone, completely eviscerated, just as ours will be soon.
And this is why we keep ruins in their cemetaries, why we tend the stones and the paths, why we walk slow, to contemplate our long past and brief future.
Three arches we look through. Past, present and future.
After flying cross country – Jerba to Tozeur, three days, 15mph average – I was starting to think that I’d earned that kind of speed. My feet were spinning round like happy hamsters on the wheel, I was fit and strong and I was working hard. I earned that speed, dammit.
But the past two days of grinding, creaking roule has reminded me that for long-distance cyclists speed isn’t earned; it’s given. My muscles haven’t been working any less hard in those two days, I swear, but somehow I’ve only managed to average a paltry 11mph.
In this way, cycling less represents driving or even walking as a mode of transport: it is more like sailing. All I can do is put my ship out on the ocean and make sure the sail is up. Everything else, everything else that dictates the speed I travel at, is out of my hands.
For a cyclist this means the wind speed and direction, it means the quality of the road surface and it means the topography through which you’re cycling. All of these things have a greater impact on the speed of travel than how fast I pump my legs round.
A pleasant sight for sore legs: straight downhill.
For example, if I’m grinding along at 10mph into a headwind (as I have for the last two days), then sure I could pedal faster and sprint my speed up to 13mph, but as soon as I collapse back onto the saddle, I’ll be back at 10mph, exhausted. But if the wind would only drop for a second – all of a sudden I’ll be doing 15mph without even trying.
Same goes for hills. Uphill, sometimes I’m down as low as 6mph. Downhill on a good road can be well over 30mph. But if the road surface is bad, then there’s no point risking a fast descent if the pay-off is a broken front fork – or worse. And so downhill can be slow too. Even a slightly less than perfect road can kill you for 2mph.
So speed isn’t earned; it is given. And I’ll be grateful for whatever I get.
* Please note: I am not actually on speed. I am on levothyroxine. Quite enough.
This is going to be one of those fun round-up posts that you all love. Mainly because I’ve got horribly behind on posting. You all think I’m in Jerba still don’t you? Ha! Fools. You should be following me on twitter, then you’d know the dark truth.
I cycled through some of this. East of Matmata.
Another reason why I’m going to save you all the hassle of reading words is because I went back to Matmata and I don’t like to repeat myself. If you want, you can re-read my Matmata Motobylette Man post because I met him again. This time he even offered me a go on his motobylette! I declined gracefully. My legs were still vibrating from climbing the vertical cliff-face onto which Matmata apparently clings.
And some of this. On the road to Douz.
The very next day, I cycled from Matmata to Douz. The road was very straight, very long and rather dusty. I cycled straight past the main road turn-off for Ksar Ghilane – you know, the nice sealed road that I could have taken from Matmata instead of this one. Here I also met some soldiers, apparently confounded by my use of bicycle.
The main purpose of going to Douz, though, was to bring you this photo:
To arrive here! (again). The Sahara.
So there you have it: cycling to the Sahara.
Some more cycling? Okay then. This time heading north, up to Kebili and then across to Tozeur.
Scared because I’m fleeing the double-headed camel arch in the background. Not because I’m cycling and photographing at the same time.
But before I bring you the star of today’s show, let me share with you one of the road hazards of Tunisia: the Tunisian cyclist-death nodule. These are glass bubbles drilled into the road, just where a cyclist would want to cycle if they didn’t want to get run over. They look like this:
A Tunisian cyclist-death nodule.
But what is particularly cunning about the Tunisian cyclist-death nodule is their unpredictability. After three weeks of careful study, I can tell you that they appear and disappear with a disorder matched in complexity only by chaos theory. And of course, being glass, many of them are smashed, creating a nice cyclist-puncture-death hazard.
To give you a further glimpse of the fatal dangers I face in a desert, here’s a picture of a dead donkey. I don’t know what he died of, but there is an empty beer can resting right next to his rotting gullet. Was he desperately gasping for a last drink – any drink? Or was alcohol abuse the cause of death? We may never know.
Alcohol abuse kills.
But finally to today’s star show: the Chott el-Jerid, otherwise known as the place where “Luke Skywalker contemplated the two moons in the first Star Wars movie”. That’s what my guide book says anyway. I have no idea what that means. To me, it is otherwise known as “that bloody great sea of salt,” which I think is a much more apt description.
Seriously: as far as the eye can see: salt.
Salt. A lot of salty salt salt.
I know it is salt because I stuck my hand into the ground, grabbed myself a lump and tasted it. Salt. Here was more salt than you could imagine. Yes, even more than in a fish and chip shop.
Handful of salt. Grabbed out of the ground under my feet.
Of course, the Tunisian’s aren’t stupid. They don’t stick their hands in to mine this stuff, they have big salt grabbers to get it for them. And Tunisia is the world’s 34th biggest salt producer. An entirely underwhelming statistic given the magnitude of this lake.
Big salt grabbers.
In some parts, the lake does actually have water in it. I’m told that this is because we are still in winter. In the summer, not much water hangs around here.
A little lake of salt.
And so we arrive to the present moment. Consider yourself caught up with. For those of you following me on twitter, you will know what this lump of meat is:
If you’re ever cycling from Ksar Hallouf to Tataouine, look out for dinosaurs. They can really nip your ankles.
Extinct meets endangered: T-Rex vs cyclist.
If you’re ever cycling from Tataouine to Jerba, look out for the rain. Seriously. I’m in the middle of a desert and it’s been raining. All day.
If you’re ever looking around the Roman ruins of Gightis, watch out for the “hands-on” guide. Uncomfortable invasion of personal space inappropriate in an underground Roman cistern.
A hole into which you should not be tempted. Unless you want to be pressed up against a wall and shown crumbling concrete.
And if you’re ever on Jerba, look out for two clowns called Ali and Walid. They drink beer fast and they don’t like to pay for it.
So now I’m on Jerba. It was nice to get on a ferry to the island. Especially a FREE ferry. However, I was under the impression that I only had 10km to cycle across the island to Houmt Souk, Jerba’s main town. So I was horrified when I found out it was 21km. Up hill, into a headwind, on ripped-up roads. The last 8km or so was drifted with sand too, so I had trucks blowing grit into my eyes, my mouth.
But finally I arrived: Paradise Island’s Pearl of the Mediterranean. Me, I was totally underwhelmed. It looked pretty ugly. To be fair, though, I arrived through the bus station. No bus station is ever that nice. Not even in Paradise.
Perhaps not pretty, but one of Tunisia’s two cycle paths.
I am feeling the slave / master reflex a little in Jerba. I am holiday, I should be in total command of my time. But I worry that I should be visiting all the souqs, the fish market, the beach, the synagogue, the fort… And suddenly I’m not the master at all, but a slave to my guidebook.
So instead I go for a tea and an omelette sandwich at a resolutely local cafe.
The cafe is frantic. People urgent, hands pressing an argument, flying prose. Flick of lighters, suck of cigarettes. Short coffees, sugar, go faster. Even the two old men sitting in front of me are apparently having a desperate, life and death conversation about the kind of fabric the cafe chairs are made of. I blame it on the dust. Dust makes everything a little chaotic.
The cafe just happens to be on the main road from Houmt Souk out to the Zone Touristique, where most of the European tourists stay. Lots of taxis are passing, filled with young men and women in revealing clothes, on their way back to the beach. The cafe has suddenly filled up, surrounding me claustrophobically. So I decide to join the young things out on the beach.
Or I try to. I take the road for 10km, but only get as far as a rocky shoreline, blown about with plastic bottles and old crushed cans of beer. Cardboard boxes stick into what ever thin strip of muddy sand there is. Somewhat underwhelming for Paradise, but the sun’s starting to set so I should head back.
Me in a happy drunk’s hat. Shortly before meeting less happy drunks.
Then Ali comes up to me. He seems nice. Tells me the beach is another 10km away. He speaks some English so we chat for a bit about my bike trip. He likes the rips in my shirt sleeves – air-conditioning! Then he introduces me to his brother, Walid. Walid is way more sketchy, he’s erratic and seems convinced that I can speak German. I can not.
Ali and Walid invite me for a drink, a tea or coffee. I tell them I’ve got to get back to Houmt Souk before the sun sets. But I finally, fatefully, agree to a quick cup of tea.
They take me to a hotel bar, but we leave pretty quick. Ali tells me that they didn’t serve tea. This seems unlikely, but fine.
So we go into another bar, where Ali and Walid have a long argument with the waiter, who seems to have some objection or other. Sensing something fishy, I walk out of the bar, back to my bike and – lo and behold! – the waiter has no more objection.
Ali spins a spurious story, saying he’d been trying to procure us an outside table, so I could watch my bike in safety. I ignore his lies and the waiter brings out two beers for the brothers and my tea. And the bill, which I think a little odd. Then the waiter asks for the money upfront. I ignore him. This was a mistake.
At last! The beach? AKA Scene of the crime.
I drink my tea quickly, seeing the sun set. Ali downs his beer and suddenly looks very unwell and very drunk. The waiter brings out two more beers and another bill. He again asks for the money. I say I’ll pay for a tea.
There then follows “a scene,” in which I voluminously object to paying for the brothers’ beer and they insist this is normal practice. The waiter, meanwhile, looks slightly upset.
Unfortunately, I only had a ten dinar note, so the waiter simply gave me change from 8.800 – the cost of the first two beers and the tea. Rather than cause more of “a scene,” I decided to cut my losses there. I am always acutely aware that one vicious blow from the back hand of an irate drunk could cause irreparable damage to my precious bicycle and would rather be down 6 dinar than a bicycle.
I did, however, give the waiter a stern talking to. He shrugged his shoulders and said that Ali had said we were friends. In fairness to the waiter, he did argue with Ali at the start and did ask for money up front.
As I left, Walid had the cheek to ask for a tip for the waiter. Ha!
But, don’t be mistaken: this is not what Tunisia is like. This is resortland, this is where tourists mean money. And when the tourists don’t show up, as they haven’t been since the revolution last year, that means there aren’t any jobs. And when there are no jobs, seems like a lot of kids want to drink beer – but can’t afford their own supply. So what do they do?
No, Tunisia is not like this. Tunisia is hot-faced kids working hands like magic wands over street stoves, serving up chapatti filled with salami, cheese, egg, onion, tuna to families and friends. That’s what I love.
As a side note, being a David abroad has got harder. To people all over the globe, I used to be David Beckham and this time I’ve occasionally maintained my footballing greatness with David Villa, but overwhelmingly it’s been David Cameron.What is sad is that they don’t realise how grievous an insult this is.
Things I’ve learnt today: a prostitute in Medenine costs approximately 78 dinar per hour (about £33). That’s 13 dinar for ten minutes, which is apparently all you need if you’re a Tunisian teenager.
But before we come to that, I feel I should share with you some appellative angst. As you can see from the title of this post, I’m not really sure what to call my little bike ride now that I’ve been to the Sahara. I’m still cycling and I’m still in the desert – and I will be for some time yet, as I intend to pop over to Douz, which is known as the gateway to the Sahara. So how can I be cycling back from the Sahara if I’m yet to arrive at its gateway?
The day started brightly, with me being chased across a desert by a 4×4 containing a deluded campsite owner. He thought I hadn’t paid for my tent. I had. Luckily, this simple assertion was enough to convince him and I continued on my way (into a headwind).
Deluded campsite owners aside, you’ll be pleased to hear that my route out of the Ksar Ghilane was vastly more comfortable than my route in. I hereby recommend the route from Bir Soltane to Beni Khadeche. Only about 10 miles of it is bone-shaking track – and none of it was anywhere near as bad as the best of the Matmata to Bir Soltane version.
Joyous track of painless wonder.
And after that: sublime. The road swerved through a valley dropped with mountains, lined with flowers, filling my nostrils with their sweetness. At this point, I should roll out a few evocative flower names to tantilise your senses. But all I know is that there was a purple one and a yellow one and they smelt good.
The only point of anguish on the road was when my left sandal slipped from the pedal at about 10mph. The pedal continued its mechanically ordained trajectory, racing down and round to bite mercilessly deep into my achilles tendon. Blood bursts in abundance. Another scar for the collection. Like a Roman chariot with scythed wheels, my pedals have sharp metal spikes. I’m sure the manufacturers would argue that they are for extra grip, but I’m convinced the designer was a malicious sadist.
Shuddering to a eye-watering halt, I notice then that my front basket had torn through its moorings and was now dangling, like a ten-year-old’s milk tooth, by a single strand.
But nothing can distract from the beauty of a good bike ride.
Ksar Hallouf, palmerie.
And so I made it in good time to Ksar Hallouf, a pretty little palmerie perched in a valley. To describe a ksar as a granary would be both factually inaccurate and a gross misrepresentation. A ksar is a fortified village, but it is true that often the distinctive architectural feature of the ksar are its granaries.
At Ksar Hallouf, the fortified part of town is up a gigantic mountain, far above the little palmerie where the townsfolk live now. I only mention this because I was led to believe that you could stay overnight in the granaries up there, so hauled my bike and all my possessions up this vertical cliff-face. When I got to the top, drenched in sweat, a guardian appeared to inform me that all the only accommodation was down below in the palmerie.
The granaries of Ksar Hallouf.
Back down in the palmerie, I stayed with Saada and Mahamad in their little pension, fancifully reconstructed ancient granaries. Mohamad is 20 and the seventh child of 3 brothers and 3 sisters. After lunch, he took me on a walk in the mountains above the oasis.
Mahamad on top of a ksar, with a legha.
As we walked, we talked. Nothing was off the agenda: house prices, football, drugs and of course the prostitutes of Medenine. He’d only been to her once – it was too expensive. Not as expensive as the other option, though: getting married. A wedding costs 4,000 dinar and involves feeding about 300 guests. A cheap house for the newly weds would be about 10,000 dinar. He’s going to have to wait ten years at least before getting married – and that means ten years before any regular sex. He listened with jealous wonder as I told him how it was in England.
Berber shepherd sleep hole.
Mahamad showed me where the berber shepherds sleep and where they keep water in underground gullies. He showed me two more ruined ksour (plural of ksar). Mahamad picked a bunch of herbs for tea and taught me all their names in Arabic. Taught might be a bit of a strong word, for it implies some sort of retention in the mind of the learner. He cropped me a strip of palm tree to use as a walking stick (in Arabic, a legha – I remembered that one). He also gave me a pair of flints used by berber shepherds to make fire and a porcupine spine.
Then he told me that the police have all the marijuana at the moment and asked me if I could bring him a girl from England next time.
I tried to explain that there’s usually more to it than that.
So without further ado, and before you all start thinking that I’m having a miserable time worrying about the hideous environmental impact of tourism, here is the Ksar Ghilane happy post.
I’M IN THE FREAKING SAHARA!
(Or, as some of you have noticed: I was in the Sahara. But because there is no internet in the middle of the world’s greatest desert, these words, although conceived in the deepest Sahara, were not uploaded for your delectation until now.)
So I cycled all the way from my house in London (ahem) to the Sahara desert (ahem). Okay, so I only cycled from Caterham to Vernouillet and then from Tunis to the Sahara. But still.
Anyway, my point is that it really isn’t far. If you count only miles in Tunisia then I’d be on about 500 miles. That’s nothing! And it includes a totally unnecessary detour of about 80-120 miles around the Cap Bon. Theoretically, you could catch a train from London to Marseille (careful), hop on a boat (careful) and cycle to the Sahara in a week.
What I’m saying is: you should do this.
No, not this. This is just an artfully placed camel.
The Saharan desert is like nothing else on earth. Despite all the tourist petrol rubbish, it takes only a few steps out into the dunes, out into the great sand sea, to feel like the first annointed saint, the first man on the moon, the last man on earth.
Whatever. If you aren’t interested, you aren’t interested. I’ll entertain you instead. By showing you some pictures of men riding on horses. Upside down.
Man riding horse. Upside down. At high speed, I should add.
You see, I appear to have landed in Ksar Ghilane at the time of the Spring Festival. I’m not convinced this is a good thing, especially when my afternoon siesta ( = post-cycle wipeout) is interrupted by a loudspeaker turned up way past 11. Somewhat grumpily, then, I crawl out of my berber tent to learn what the fuss is about. But it would take a heart of iron not to be charmed by the sight of a six-week old baby in the arms of a tuareg horseman riding through the oasis. At 40mph.
Men holding hands. On horses. At high speed.
Aside from the attractions of the desert (4x4s notwithstanding), the attractions of men showing off on horseback and the attractions of European men in tight shorts with their guts out, the oasis also boasts a hot spring. Despite its name, the hot spring is actually luke warm. It is also slightly mineral and very sandy.
When I ventured into the luke-warm shallows, the spring was populated by impertinent schoolboys from Douz. Impertinent only by English standards, I should add. All Tunisians are impertinent by English standards. Everyone here asks me if I’m alone. I thought one kid was saying hello. “Alo? Alo?” he said. “Hello!” I replied cheerily. “No, a-low!”
A musical interlude.
But the oasis is a small place – everyone knows that I am alone. There’s only one long-haired, stripily-tanned Englishman in this place that I’ve seen. It’s just that they can’t believe it. They think there must be a story behind it. Perhaps my wife is ill. Perhaps she is following behind. Perhaps she is waiting for me in Douz. No. I am alone. Totally alone. Will be for the whole two months. And I’m on a bicycle. Yes, a bicycle with pedals. No motor. Yes I am cycling on it. Through Tunisia, yes. And then back through France to London. Yes alone. Totally alone.
This should be some sort of triumphant Saharan-arrival post, but I forgot to take a photograph of me and my bicycle in the sand, so you’ll just have to wait a while for that.
Instead, I’m going to moan on about the misery of petrol-based transport and overweight European men in tight shorts.
To which I think we can all say: yuk.
Ksar Ghilane is an oasis on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the great sand seas of the Sahara. It is a miracle. It is also a tourist hot spot, being both easily accessible (if you don’t cycle) and astonishingly beautiful.
Free hot springs at Ksar Ghilane oasis.
I have been to Ksar Ghilane once before, in 2008. In four years it has developed a great deal. I don’t remember seeing so many campsites or so many vehicles or so many petrolheads and tourists last time. Beer, bikinis, men in tight shorts, guts out. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also costly for the sustainability of the oasis. Water is tight and Europeans (me included) loooove water.
But despite the plentiful supply of Europeans, I feel more alone here in Ksar Ghilane than anywhere else I’ve been so far, for two reasons.
Firstly, all the other tourists are in big groups, roving gangs of Italians, Germans and Tunisians all trying to look cool. The employees aren’t much better it seems to me, all sunglasses and crazy stubble beards.
Secondly, everyone else is into one thing and one thing only: pissing about on petrol machines. Quads or bikes or 4x4s. It’s disgusting. Even people you might expect to have an appreciation for the sanctity of the desert. I spoke to one teacher whose eyes lit up recalling her morning on a quad bike. “It’s addictive,” she said. When I said I didn’t like petrol meachines, she admitted that they did rather break the serenity. No shit.
4x4s at Ksar Ghilane.
I resent the noise of the engines, I resent the smell of the diesel, I resent the damage that you can see scarred into the sand. But these people are on holiday, the locals are earning a living and everyone is having fun. Unthinking or uncaring, I know not which.
And, to be fair, driving about on dunes is fun. It is right there, petrol fun: speed, beauty, excitement. It makes you laugh and cry out with thrilling excitement. And the buzz stays with you.
But there’s not much more you can say for it than that. It’s a thrill. It’s not going to teach you much and it costs the environment, but it’s a thrill.
Swarming invasion of quad bikes.
Walking in the desert, by comparison, is a quieter sort of thrill. There is the thrill of being amongst the dunes. There is the thrill from the silence (while it lasts from the 4x4s and quads and bikes). There’s the thrill from the emptiness and the magnitude. And it costs comparatively little.
Walking in the desert doesn’t give you the exhausting, exhilarating thrill of quad bikes. It gives you a vibrating thrill of awe in the sublime joy of nature. You could get the thrill of quad biking on the Oxfordshire downs (and people do: swap sand for mud, sun for cloud and Tuareg for chavs – it’s the same damn thing). The desert does not add much to the quad-biking experience because desert beauty is quiet and difficult. Quads take that away. Walking, on the other hand, does not.
Walking through the dunes.
So I walked across the dunes to a ruined fort. Most people come out here in 4x4s, quad bikes or motorbikes. I remember driving here in a 4×4 myself in 2008, staggering round half asleep, scared my camera would stick up in the sand, taking photos through a plastic bag. It seems absurd, sad even. But I walked here this time. It only took about 45 minutes.
Not many others walk here. But why not?
Only when walking can you see the flowers close up, precious gifts of the spring. The sandfall trickle down the dunes, dispersed by your feet. Unexplained hard nodules of sand butting out into the wind. The trails of the scarab beetles and sand ants, propped up on huge stilt legs. The tracks of camels, occasional footprints. Sadly less than occasional tyre tracks. Dunes so big you disappear into them. The cool of the shade-side sand. The heat as your leg sinks into the dune slopes. The sun working on your imagination. The dunes like waves on the sea, making it impossible to tell how far you still have to go. The fort disappearing into the distance, seeming further away than ever.
Then suddenly it’s there in front of you. And you see the 4x4s gunning their engines to drive up the steep sand slopes, so nobody even needs to walk up the last 25 metres.
Matmata: another man with a 4×4 offers me a desert Safari. ‘No, thanks,’ I reply. ‘I’m cycling to Ksar Ghilane on my bicycle tomorrow.’ ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘You know the best way is down this road. More direct than the main route.’ ‘Really?’ I ask. ‘Yes, yes. Over the jebel, then – ‘ he makes a motion with his hand as if it’s all down hill from there. I’m slightly nervous as the road he indicates is not marked on my drawn-from-space road map. So I ask: ‘Is it signed?’ ‘Yes, yes. It is direct to a roundabout, turn right and arrive Bir Soltane – after that Ksar Ghilane.’
So, always happy to avoid a main road, I vow to follow his advice.
The next day, it takes me approximately ten minutes to recognise the truth of Tolkein’s aphorism that short cuts make long delays.
Less a road, more one extended pot hole.
The “road” that led over the jebel was, well, I think even a 4×4 would have had trouble to be honest. I certainly didn’t see any attempting it. To cross it on a fully-laded touring bicycle was nerve-shredding. As the front wheel stacked into deep road-scars, I’d wince as the back wheel crunched down with the full weight of my baggage. Every moment I expected to hear the crack of spokes snapping. Up hill was dragging slow, but the down hills were only more dangerous.
And – is it signed, my arse! Unless by “signs” he meant “old men on donkeys” of whom I encountered two, both appearing at critical moments. Once as I pondered turning back at the sight of miles and miles of up and down hills tracked only by treacherous washed-out roads, pot holes the size of meteor craters. And the other when I reached the “roundabout” of my guide’s description. Is it signed? No it is not signed. At all. It’s a T-junction with a choice of east or west. That’s it.
But at least the road surface after the junction is better. If I could reach the road surface, that is. Unfortunately it is covered in an inch of sand, so the bike can only manage about ten metres of swerves before I have to dig the tyres out of the dune. Still, I’d rather swerves than the potential death of the pot holes.
I tell a lie: there was ONE sign. But look at that sand!
This “road” to Ksar Ghilane is also guarded by ten dogs. Thankfully, they were only barkers, not chasers. I think they were gobsmacked to see a cyclist to be honest. Only one shepherd’s dog put in a half-hearted chase.
I didn’t get lost at any point on this “road”, but I think that is only because to be lost you must have had some idea of where you were in the first place. I didn’t see more than ten people all day – a few flocks of sheep and two camels – but not many people who could guide me.
Huh? Is this the Sahara or the Cotswolds?
When I saw a shepherd boy on a donkey, I dumped my bike at the side of the road and marched across the sand towards him. He climbed down off his donkey and started over to me. We met in the middle. “You are alone?” he asked, after comfirming that this was indeed the road to Bir Soltane. “Very difficult,” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.
The “road” surface was mainly spine-crunching stones about the size of a baby’s head. Every bounce and crack a brief panic at the idea of getting a puncture – or worse, that my wheel spokes would snap at the strain. The surface and the care that I took with it meant that I couldn’t exactly enjoy the view. After the mountains, it would be fair to say that there wasn’t much view to enjoy anyway.
Stark. Featureless. Bumpy.
Every now and then I’d cross a waterless wadi, turned into a sea of gravel. I’d need to push across, of course.
After “cycling” through this god-blasted land for 26.08 miles at an average speed of just 8.1mph, I finally reached the main road to Ksar Ghilane, where the 4x4s roar.
Hurrah – only another 28 miles to go! Into a 14mph headwind.
I’ve never been so glad to see a proper road in my life.
Long-distance cycling will always, at some point, become an arduous task. Whether it’s Tunisia’s flat expanses of eye-watering desert or the hard shoulder of the A1, there will come moments when every turn of the pedals seems a pointless trial of will.
Long, straight, dull.
At these moments, it is tempting to push aside the present and to try to make time pass faster by plugging in your headphones and listening to something totally dislocated from now.
The juxtaposed sound of Bob Dylan crying about racial murder in Louisiana or spiral rhythms dropping from the decks of a DJ in Bristol can bring an odd comfort to cycling on a bleached-out main road in Tunisia, as trucks torment me with their dust-devil exhaust pipes, the sun soddens my shirt and the squeaky crank of my sand-choked chain drills into my brain.
But dislocating by MP3 is not all good. Music focuses the mind on the subject or the mood of the song. This is great if you are in trouble (I whole-heartedly believe that Nashville Skyline saved my life when I was cycling through northern France with a broken bike at 4am in the morning), but where would your thoughts take you if you were cycling in silence? What could you learn, what could you understand for yourself?
I haven’t used my MP3 player the last two days – not even on the 136km main road from Sfax to Gabes. I preferred fantasy and my own thoughts. At the risk of sounding like I’m going insane, I have conversations. Not just with myself, but with my friends. These are real conversations: they make me laugh. I wouldn’t possibly laugh out loud if I was just making up these conversations on my own. No, my friends are there with me, telling jokes.
In Tunisia, it also feels rude to have headphones on, certainly when going through towns and villages. Every person you pass on the road expects and offers a greeting. It is hard to greet someone when you’re listening to heavy metal and conversation is impossible.
I shall keep my MP3 player. If nothing else, it is good for blocking out the snoring coming from the hotel room next door. But I am certainly using it far less on the road. The birds are calling to me…
Story goes: I cycled to Matmata, a small town dug into the ground on the way to the Sahara. In the seventies, George Lucas sprinkled tourist-gold over the town by filming Star Wars there. Henceforth the town was cursed to be a place of pilgrimmage for cultic cinema-goers wishing to see the spot where a fictional character wasn’t born.
Matmata le jour.
For me, it was a nice spot to stop after a big day of cycling the day before. So I sat on a wall overlooking a green-coated wadi, watching the sun fall between two palm trees as the mosque gave the dusk call to prayer.
A young man barks up on a motobylette behind me. A motobylette is essentially a bicycle with a motor gaffa-taped on the back. He greets me. I flinch, instinctively.
I flinch because it is customary in Matmata for locals to tout tourists for business. It is all part of the curse. This business involves invading the privacy of various put-upon residents for the purpose of ogling their homes / Star Wars sets, ostensibly on Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tataouine. I hope this makes sense to some of you readers, because I had no idea what they were talking about.
The Millenium Falcon. Oh no, it’s a bicycle. And my foot.
The other business is desert touring. Everyone here seems to own a stable of camels, horses, 4x4s, quad bikes, motorbikes and numerous other conveyances to rent for the purpose of desert safari. These propositions are usually fairly swiftly dealt with. “You want tour of desert?” “No thanks, I’m going there alone.” “Oh, you have 4×4?” “No. I have a bicycle.” “Ah, yes, okay – I put bicycle on car and into Sahara.” “No, I’m cycling there myself.” At which point the proposition usually founders.
Good cycling terrain.
Anyway, once the propositions are over, quite often these men just want to chat.
So the young man on the motobylette told me that he was from the Gdouma clan and that I was staying in the Gdouma clan area of Matmata. Apparently, the Gdouma clan are found only here in Matmata and in Senegal. And in Canada, but mainly in Matmata and Senegal.
Why? I ask. And so motobylette man tells me the story of the Gdouma clan.
A long time ago, a Gdouma man travelled to Matmata across the Sahara from Senegal. He fell in love with the beautiful Matmata women and stayed. He married and had children and his children had children and their children had children and so on. Over the years, the Gdouma skin grew whiter and whiter, until today they are indistinguishable from their neighbours. Now the motobylette man lives just 14km from where the first Gdouma man arrived all those years ago.
I ask him if he’ll ever go to Senegal, to visit his ancestors – he could take his motobylette. He objects, saying he’ll run out of gasoil – Tunisia is not a rich country, it has no gasoil. So sell the motobylette and take a camel, I say. He laughs. I’m not joking. He says he’d rather go to Canada, but the government won’t let him.
An old man rolls up at this point and sends motobylette man off to buy some bread. The old man sits down on the wall next to me.
A few minutes later, motobylette man returns. He failed to find bread for the old man. There’s only one baker in town and he only bakes enough bread for the inhabitants of Matmata, about 2000 people. If it runs out, it runs out. At the moment there are a lot of Tunisian tourists here because of the holidays and they’ve eaten all the townspeople’s bread! Part of the curse, again.
The old man gets up and goes off to the shop to buy flour so that his wife can make bread at home. You see, the man and the wife work together to make bread. The man buys the flour and the woman bakes, motobylette man tells me.
He’s never seen Matmata so green, not in 14 years. Normally there is very little rain, but right now there is a dusting of green over everything. Shrubs sprouting everywhere. Purple and yellow flowers rooting and blooming – from nowhere, it looks like. Later, someone tells me that twenty days ago it even snowed in Matmata. I don’t believe that, but the next morning, when I see the town hung with mist, I think perhaps it’s true.
Motobylette man says there are few European tourists here at the moment, perhaps because of the economic crisis. And if there is crisis in Europe, he says, then in Tunisia there is death. And he laughs. He tells me that he is guide, but also not guide. I think he means he is an unlicensed guide. Most people here work with tourists in one way or another. You can see there is nothing else here, motobylette man says: no agriculture, nothing. We must do better, he says. Then he invites me for a coffee or a tea, but for me it’s dinner time.
As I go to my earthwork hotel, the old man walks past with his bag of flour.