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!)