Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 92: Barefeet and Dune Skiing

How I would have loved to stand and watch the display of the distant thunderstorm for it's duration but the sun was beginning to set behind the clouds and I could see at least three deep gulches that needed to be crossed in order to reach the small cluster of houses I could see on a ridge about three kilometers away. At just that minute there, I decided that that extended family compound would make a fine place to end the day's cross-country walk. In the Tunisian countryside, all of these families offer incrediably warm reception; everyone since leaving Gebes after my Christmas rest has urged me strongly to stay for several days. They all consist of at least four generations. The brothers each build their own house before marriage and raises his family together with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Like the borscht in Eastern Europe, the potage in France, the frijoles in Mexico, each woman makes a slightly differnt couscous.

That day on the ridge, the typical adolescent greets me in French. The women of her mother's generation rarely speaks French and the fathers return from work in the olive groves, livestock grazing, plowing or fishing just after dark. They often speak a little French, but often enough too little to have much of a conversation. Teenagers learn at school but only the brighter students can actually speak fluently. Nonetheless, the girl that evening did a respectable job speaking on behalf of the family to invite me in and show me around. It's difficult to get all the names down; but to be sure, there's always a Mohammed and an Ali among the men.

I noticed from afar that there were no powerlines leading to the houses and no solar panels. No matter. The houses are similar in construction and these were particularly plainly adorn. I could see in the twilight that a trace of a Roman wall was visible at the ground surface and near where the oldest wall of the oldest house was, it had been stripped of its masoned outer surface, these making up the cornerstones of the oldest house. The girl gave me a tour of the mangers - looking exactly like the standard Christmas nativity displays - for the donkeys and horse; the domed pens of woven palms for the sheep and goats; and the glen where the five camels spend the night hobbled. Small children fed the fowl and some boys chased the chicken for dinner We walked through the ancient olive groves that go on for hectares toward the dry wadi and the vegetable gardens where carrots, turnips, fennel, and hot peppers are grown for both animal and human consumption and various herbs are grown for 'tea'.

The lack of electricity and running water made the estate appear rather timeless. A peek into the cooking-fire house - different than the kitchen for some reason - led to an introduction to Grandmother in her traditional costume before a fire of sticks made on the pounded dirt floor squatted, stirring a great dish of couscous. To my astonishment, in the corner of this partially subterranean chamber leaned two amphorae, one nearly as tall as I and the other slightly shorter due to the pointed bottom having been cut off. For olive oil I inquired to the girl but with the universal eye-rolling and tongue-clicking response of a teenager thinking all grownups are duh, like, sooooo stuuuupid, she corrected my ignorance and said impatienrly they were for flour. How old are they, I asked. She translated for Grandmother, and the response was that they've always been there. Whether the grandfather who established the estate and harvested the stones of the Roman wall - at least a century before if it were he who planted the first olive trees of the area - found them in the pickings or bought them as functional reproductions seems not to be of interest to the modern family. Grandmother scooped some flour out as she prepared some panbaked bread. Terracotta potsherds litter the ground surface but my eye is not expert to know if they're just old or really really old. They indicate certainly that people have been here for a very long time. It's all eye candy to an observer.

The day out of Gebes, I followed the lead set by the shore fishermen as they hauled their nets in to the beach and doffed the boots and socks, rolling my hiking pants up over my knees and walked in the broad surf. The wet wadis are certainly easier to cross some meters out into the surprisingly warm sea with the firm sandy base rather than attempt to wade across the sucking mud inward from the beach. Adventures were had to be sure but I haven't got much time this evening to relate them.

The walk continued across the gently ungulating land in some places deeply incised with dry canyons, but nothing nearly as deep as those I encountered last winter in the Chihuahua desert of Mexico. Today, pressing further into the sands of the Sahara, produced a fierce and steady wind and the numerous shifting sand dunes have been blown crusty on the windward side and powdery on the leeward. Steely legs tempered by these thousands of kilometers make the difficult task do-albe. My stiff-soled boots and walking sticks with the snow baskets quite effectively allow me to lean back and ski down the powdery slope - a handy skill picked up also in the Chihuahua. Before I can look back into the wind to admire the graceful ess-turns carved into the slope, the shifting sands erase them. Fun, but tiring. And 47 kilometers of it!

Tomorrow, the border town of Ras Adjir; Sunday, New Year's Day, I'll ask for entry. Another call on the absent Patron Saint of Border Crossings. Happy New Year everyone, and thanks for all the supportive comments =]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Day 86 Joyeux Noel

My coastal walk has been a trip through a PBS Nature program and now there's a Christmas special. I've transitioned out of the olive and almond groves into the fringe of the Sahara. Camels have joined the sheep and goats grazing along my path. I've studied the wadis from the inside - some wet, others dry. Weasels are the abundant scurriers underfoot and the rabbits leap above the scrub from the salty holes under the banks. I've never seen such fat foxes, sly and shy as they are.

The further south I walk, the greater the unpopulated distances. I have to take care not to get caught out after dark with no village in sight. So far, I've done well. In larger villages, I stop in to see my friends of the Guard National, though, they fall a bit short of the bar set by the Gendarmarie of Morocco... olive drab uniforms aren't so dashing and they lack the endearing palm-forward salute. Nonetheless, they welcome me warmly, appreciate that I check in - pour votre securitie, Madame - and help me find a suitable place to pass the night. I think they're tired of my jaunts across the wadis and urge me always to stay on the highway, but the highway is not my way, so if they insist on keeping a close tab on me, they have to put out a little effort.

I've reached the last town of size before the Sahara begins in earnest, slowing down just a tad to arrive for Christmas festivities. The language of the group is French, yet no one's actually from France... A priest from Nigeria, another from Uganda; some students from the Ivory Coast, others from Gabon, an assortment of Europeans and some missionaries from far afield. Thirty or so in all. Huh, I'm the only pilgrim : )

Merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 81 Seashore of Yore

(just a quickie again...)

Having tons of fun and sun walking along the coast - right along the coast...feet in the lapping waves on the beach, and still, the Roman ruins are here to be tripped over. The Tunisian hospitality is right in keeping with their Arabic heritage. A few times I~ve come to a city with a French church and enjoyed the more standard pilgrim welcome. Mostly, though, as the sun begins to sink, I find some friendly women, the younger ones are almost certain to speak French, and soon enough their politely sparring with each other for who has the greater dibs on me. Few women my age or older speak any French at all so my Arabic has been improving by necessity. Women rule the households, so there~s not much gained by asking a man to help me find a place to sleep for the night. It~s all interesting.

By now I~ve had couscous prepared in a number of ways - all good - though the standard food of everyone is spaghetti. Pumpkin, potatoes, long skinny mild peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic round out the veggi line up. Little meat, and generally chicken is the standard fare, and being along the sea, lots of fish. Small ones, fried whole in olive oil. I~ve toured a few more olive oil factories, the traditional ones just like what I saw in Morocco, and similarly the end product is dark and strong. Lots of other crafts are practiced in the seaside villages I~ve walked through - basketry, stone masons hammering away on columns and other decorative construction pieces, weaving, pottery, woodworking... the doors to the courtyards are generally open during the day and if I peek in as I pass by, it usually turns into a tour of their handcraft operations and a small meal, invitations to stay a few days, discussions of relatives suitable for marriage...

Dates are in season here at the moment and make for good pilgrim food though at the cost of sticky fingers... and on the subject of sticky fingers, walking through a crowded medina in Sousse, I was relieved of both the tiny penknife I keep hanging on my belt and the folding reading glasses in the pocket of my hipbelt. I was occupied protecting my leather pouch that holds my credenziale and my passport with one arm and my hiking poles with the other. How the sticky fingers got passed my guard, I don-t know. Practice I guess. I think the medinas were designed for the benefit of thieves. Ah well. Something good will come out of it.

I set my route based on a Roman road that crossed North Africa. I~ve been finding bits of the Roman road and a lot of ruins, some now protected with archeological status, others just out among the sand dunes. Many of the towns that are hot spots now have been continually occupied since the time of the Romans, so they~re not so much ruins as just remodeled. The architecture really hasn~t changed much. It~s funny to look at building methods when weather-tightness is not an issue. There~s a lot of interesting things around and the area makes for pretty good pilgrim land. I could recommend that they tidy up the trash, though, it~s quite a problem in the towns as well as the countryside.

Yikes, gotta run now, but I~m heading toward Gebes for Christmas - there~s a small European and West African community there, so there~ll be a few Christians around to celebrate with. It will take another week and a half to get to the Libyan border and see what they say about entering. Dear Santa, I~ve been a very good girl and would like a visa for Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Day 72: Pilgrim Wonderland

Just a quickie again (and on a French keyboard)

Back on the trail and loving it. It didn't take too long to exit the city noise and confusion for the farm fields and country lanes. As the sun was beginning to sink, I entered a village, sat down for a rest on a molded plastic chair in front of a small shop to give some thought to how to best find a place to sleep for the night. The solution presented itself. Stress-free. The small crowd that gathered in amazement took care of my needs. Nasrine, a very elegant and mature 11-year-old served as translator and hostess. It seems that outside the city, the generation people my age who grew up just after their independence, don't speak French. The current youth of Tunisia learn Arabic and French equally in school and English as the third language, and by the time they graduate high school at 18 learn Spanish and Italian additionally. Remarkable. I think Nasrine is at the head of her class.

Welcomed into the family home, in a short while a trip was made to the local police station to register the foreigner staying under their roof. Quite proud was the family to state and record their hospitality. Nice. They all took good care of me, sharing the family meal of macaroni and spicy tomato-chili sauce, olive oil, and bread, and pulling out another mattrass. Simplicity.

In the morning, side pockets full of snacks for the day, I came to Ouhdna, an archeological site of an evidently grand ville of Roman antiquity. I saw the columns on a hill in the distance and hiked across a fallow field to get there. An arena, work shops, apartments full of mosaics, a temple... tons of history at my feet. Workers chiseling away at their restoration projects shared their tea and bread with me during the short morning break. I left as a busload of Japanese tourists arrived.

The peacefulness of the quiet country lanes reintroduced me to pilgrim life. Village people call me to sit in the shade and have cold water or hot coffee... idyllic now as in the Roman times. Ah.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 71: A Pilgrim Again

The wait is over, but the visa not quite in hand. The struggle's been a difficult one, due to the lack of infrastructure. Lots of misinformation out there, and a predictable level of extortion. People see dollar signs when the hear of an American passport. Lots of phone calls and faxes, but still no visa. Lots of waiting. I'm surprised and amused by the number of marriage proposals I've gotten hanging out in front of the Libyan Embassy... 'married at 5, on a flight to the US by 6'. Sorry fellas, doesn't work that way. I'm done with this life in limbo. I'm walking today. I'm a pilgrim.

The revised plan that precipitated out of the situation is that I'll enjoy the pilgrim experience of Tunisia. It should take around 18 days to walk to the border, mostly along the coast. It's the touristic area, and therefore I anticipate some degree of inauthenticity, but it shouldn't be crowded this time of year. I need to get back to the pilgrim life of 38 kilometers a day, new people to talk with every evening.

When I arrive at the border, I'll ask again for permission to enter. If they say yes, I continue; if they say not without the elusive invitation for a visa, then I'll make my way to a port and find a ship.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 68:Waiting...

Waiting on a sinusoidal wave between a patient calm and a frantic frenzy in the search for an invitation to Libya to be secured before a visa is issued... waiting waiting waiting safely and securely with no troubles except the interruption of my pilgrimage. I'll have to suffer the aches and pains all over again once I restart the daily walks. Ah well. So it goes. Life is still good. More soon, when the waiting is over.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Day 64: The Making of a Champion

Land ho without any deviation from the plan except a four-hour delay caused by overcrowding of the ship. Why so many people, why so many cars, why so many Mercedes??? I posed these questions to some men I lounged on the chairless deck with eating the last of my Morrocan clementines as we waited in Sicily for more passengers and their cars to board. The ship is loaded with entrepreneurial Libyans, recently able to travel more freely about Europe. My mates: four guys who pooled their funds raised enough money to buy a used Mercedes to sell to an eager market. Buy for €2,000 sell for the equivalent of €6,000. There were hundreds of these cars waiting to be driven the 500 kilometers to Libya.

For 28 hours we crossed together. First carving out space, then becoming friendly with the new neighbors. Easy to imagine, I was the only woman traveling alone. Few women in general, having the time to take a statistical accounting, I computed 1% of the travelers as women... fewer Europeans. So I stood out a bit in the crowd. At least one guy recognized me as a fellow passenger on the ill-fated ship from Barcelona. He commented to me when the announcement was made every hour declaring strict enforcement of the no smoking policy - the fire had been the result of someone smoking in hiding and tossing the smoldering butt among the trucks below. Nonetheless, the cabin was a smoking den as men lit one after another as they played cars.

Sadly, the coast of Tunisia, and particularly the port of ancient Carthage, appeared as but twinkling lights in the distance because of the delay. At last under the bright lights of the active port of the capital, I was eager to get on dry land again to escape the smoke and crowds. Without a dinar in my pocket, I had planned to walk to the city center to find the cathedral, but after dark, the idea begged for revision. It would take until after midnight. Into the mass of barking cabbies I launched myself and found a sympathetic ear among them. Many sympathetic ears, in fact. Once I explained my purpose and situation - no money but wanting to continue my trip - two big men actually shoved each other shouting loudly in the Arabic way - who gets to provide the hospitality of driving the pilgrim to city center. A man with a name that means 'faithful' won the honor and gave me a lovely short history tour along the way. In French. (My head is so slow to switch from one language to another.) Faithful became my champion and didn't release me when we arrived at the cathedral because the gates were locked. Double-parked, he led me around to the entrance to the Archbishop's residence and put me under the care of the night-watchman.

Now the night-watchman, Fahad, became my champion. Though he tried to dissuade me from ringing the bell because the offices were closed until morning, he stood by as I got the attention of a very elderly priest. The priest invited me to enter but said that there was no room at all for me to stay the night. He gave me 20 dinars (the value of which I had no idea) and called back out to the night-watchman to take me to a 'petit hotel' nearby. Fahad took me to many. Most of them fully occupied. Why. A festival? No, Algerians fleeing to tranquility and Libyans in transit, my champion explained. Tunis is a great city, he added. Seems it. Except that the hotels that weren't full were very expensive. My exhaustion caught up to me. Do you know of any convents or communities of religious sisters? Sure, down the alley from the cathedral. This time, my champion disappeared around the corner when I rang the bell. The sisters were at vespers but a young foreign man courteously let me in to wait. The multinational sisters of the Argentinian order not only let me stay but brought me a tray of dinner as well. A hot shower, a comfortable bed, warm blankets, ah, heaven on this pilgrim earth.

In the morning, I set out to find the Libyan embassy to know if I'll be able to advance. The tourist information center gave me the wrong address, but when I was wandering around asking the way, a wonderful Tunisian fellow no only told me where to go, but led me there personally. During the 5 minute walk, I explained my purpose - a silent pilgrim does the world no good. He was incredulous but intrigued completely with the idea of my pilgrimage. I must gain entry into Libya! He'll help. At the embassy, surrounded by great coils of razor wire and military tanks and men with guns, he explained in Arabic to guards at different posts. No one is permitted to enter the building; all discussions are conducted in the street below a high window. Shouting to the embassy staff up inside the open window, my champion explained everything on my behalf. The other people crowded below the window became involved with the adventure. What can be done to get the necessary visa to allow the pilgrim to continue? The pilgrim must continue!

With lots of discourse about types of visas and the instabilities in the cities but the kindness of the people, the bottom line is that an invitation is needed. A Libyan man in the street with plans to return to Libya in the afternoon assured my champion that he could fax an invitation from Libya in the morning. The embassy in Tunis is closed for the weekend, so the plan developed, I could return Monday morning, toss my passport up through the window, and have it tossed back down to me with the proper documentation that will allow me time enough to walk across the country. I gave a scrap of paper with the pertinent details to Naghi, the very kind Libyan man, and he gave me the greatest level of encouragement that I could come and stay with him and his family for as long as I wanted.

Returned to the community of sisters, I explained the good news that I can - insha'allah - get a visa for Libya and the bad news that I'd need to stay for three more nights... gulp! the tradition is that pilgrims get one bowl of soup and one night's stay at any religious house... but under the circumstances, the sisters allowed, no problem, stay until Monday. The apartments in the block-long wing of the Bishop's residence, extremely French in architecture, are sublet to international students giving the place a very lively atmosphere, and conversation in English.

The common element to every pilgrim day, unpredictable as they can be, is that a pilgrim needs help. Help comes to those in need, sure, but those in need can get the help a lot more efficiently if they ask. Talking with people is a huge part of the pilgrim life that I like so much. Can anyone give help - freely and earnestly - without feeling good about himself? Champions are those who actively engage in helping someone who needs it. Chivalry is not dead. Life is good.

(To be on the safe side, everyone out there, please cross fingers, press thumbs, start those prayer ropes and rosary beads circulating... whatever can be done to bring good juju to the Libyan embassy in Tunis. Patron saint of border crossings, we could use you now!)