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On the road . November 2010 . Tunisia

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Internet Café, Matrouh, Egypt, 24-12-10
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Tunis to Kairouan
(2+ cycle days; 173km; 867m)

Tunis suburbs to Tunis city centre (14km; 12m)
Tunis to 10 km after El Fahs (73km; 490m)

10 km after El Fahs to Kairouan (86km; 365m)

After 4 weeks, you can imagine we are definitely ready to get pedalling again. Tunis has a certain charm, but living out of a hotel room for so long - albeit with internet and breakfast and wonderful staff - becomes pretty tiresome. We visit a few tourist spots, meet up with a few locals and travellers and on more than a few occasions see the inside of the waiting room at the Libyan Embassy. I am quite familiar with the scant decor, the studded brown leather stools, the old fashioned drapery and the lone, but ceremonious photograph of Gadafi hanging on the wall; those Lee Major sunglasses and pastel blue robe of embroidered finery will remain forever in my memory. It should, I stared at it for long enough.

Our journey out of Tunis is easy enough and things are going great until around 12 midday. With more than 50 kilometres clocked, the headwinds begin and slow us down to just under 10 kilometres per hour. As the legs strain against each revolution, my thoughts wander aimlessly back to Argentina. There, the wind is really bad. I think about Family on Bikes and Amaya and Eric. They would surely have to be suffering more than me at the moment. I mean, this is North Africa. I haven't heard too many profound statements about the wind here. Maybe they are out there in someone's blog about cycling in Tunisia. I have to admit, I haven't read up much on our forwarding route. I've decided to travel without expectation this time.

At this moment in my thoughts, Ali turns around and yells above the hiss that these winds are as tough as in Argentina. Darn! There goes my pain comparison in which I was feeling better off. Now my mind searches frantically for something worse to weigh up against; something to convince my body that this pain is not as bad as another pain. But I just keep coming back to the sheer bad luck of this incessant push in the wrong direction. Of all the times to hit us: after a month's break and on a stretch of road we have limited time to cycle. Out comes the MP3 player: music is and will be my greatest encouragement over the next month of cycling through North Africa.

Life on the road - plenty of time?
I am given plenty of hours to reflect on the last four weeks in Tunis. Besides the odd outing, we made a good attempt at a three week long typing marathon. Many changes were made to the website; some visible, some not and there are many, many more that will just have to wait until another day. Trapped in our tent recently in Brazil, when it rained for four days and four nights, there was plenty of time to talk about all the things we wanted to do with And while we have some great ideas, trying to carry them out in your portable home with one cable running across a flooded campground to your tent flap is not really optimum. A good internet connection would also help the cause.

Life on the road doesn't always allow you the privilege of such luxouries. Of course, we knew that before we left, but we never thought this website would amount to what it is today. It is a massive job just getting the updates done each month and the more we do, the more we want to add and the better we want to make it. Quite often, we'll find the perfect spot for taking time off: ready for contemplation, writing and organisation, but there's no web connection. The opposite happens too: fast internet, but not the place you want to hang out in for any length of time.

And then the chance to take time off the saddle comes your way. Unfortunately, the one thing that plays havoc with this opportunity is the thought of time in the saddle. While planted in our wifi connected hotel room, our minds are quite happily filled with what everyone else is up to; the how's and why's of cycle touring are exchanged and debated; and we get a big chunk of work done on the website, but actually we pine to be out there cycle touring. It is trying to find the balance that becomes most difficult and in our experience never really works. Still, like most other on-the-road moments, you often don't have a variety of choice. You take whatever comes, when it comes your way.

From now until Turkey, we have decided that cycle touring will take precedence. Website improvements and sharing the vast knowledge we have collected over the nearly four and a half years of travel will just have to wait. Besides, I'm sure we'll have enough time on our hands once this trip has ended to sit reminiscently tapping away at the keys.

outside Libyan Embassy in Tunis

The not so simple joys of travel
Our Libyan visa experience is one of the most frustrating we have ever had. It didn't help any that we handed in our application 11 days before the Muslim holiday Eid: a not so pleasant time for sheep and vegetarians alike. Festivity tradition depicts that one wooly beast is divided into threes: one third for the family, another for a close relative's family and the other for a needy stranger. The poor animals are kept tied up in the strangest of places - like on a balcony across from our room - bleating to high heavens while awaiting their fate. It is a most distressing sound to try and fall asleep to. The slaughter proceedings take place on the first of the two day holiday, which compared to our visa process is very quick and the eerie quietness of Tunis cut only by tormented "baaing" is soon back to its normal bustling self. Judging by the amount of kebab shops, it is quite possible the slaughter continues, you just can't hear it above the city din.

We are told to visit the embassy after 10 days. It falls on the Monday before the Tuesday holiday and of course it is closed. We venture there immediately after the feast and two more visits follow. We never once leave the waiting room. Except for two occasions, when it becomes obvious that there is a huge breakdown in communication, we only speak on the telephone. It appears that no-one inside the building has mastered the English language and the man at reception speaks only a little French. The waiting room is where we sit and contemplate our two options: getting a visa or not getting a visa. It doesn't take long going over these two points, which is why I become so familiar with the Gadafi portrait on the wall.

Nonetheless, we persist and just kept going back with hopeful faces every time. On the seventh visit, a very mannerly gentleman in a pressed green business suit pops out into the waiting room and in the most perfect English asks, what we are waiting for. A sprightly fellow as well as being most enthusiastic about our cycle journey through Libya, he enquires as to how many days we would need. Still in shock that someone speaks the same language as us, we can't help but stare at one another in disbelief. We don't want to be greedy or say the wrong thing here, but we have just been asked something unheard of in the Libyan visa process. We must have hesitated a little too long, because this bureaucratic angel answers his own question; "Twenty days? Would that be enough? Libya is a big country, you know".

"If we could have 20 days that would be wonderful", Ali replies.
"Okay, I'll give you 20 days. Just fill in these forms and come back in an hour" and off he marches through the security scanner to the back of the building where we will never see him in person again. By this stage I am thinking, why the dickens weren't you around the last couple of times we came here and wow, this is going to make one heck of a good twitter. "Unrivalled: 20 day transit visa through Libya"

Okay, so now reality sets in. Well, actually after an excited conversation over a cup of coffee at a local cafe, where the waiter doesn't try and rip us off as soon as he realises we come from another country. And the reality is this: don't ever bet on anything until it is in your hand and you can see it for yourself. We almost skip back to the embassy, to hear from our bearer of good news that he has some bad news. Our visa application has not yet been approved. He had mistaken us for someone else. And so the vicious circle begins again: come back in two days; end of telephone conversation; start of sunken feeling; and a cheap taxi ride back to the hotel room.

Four more days of waiting, another embassy visit and we finally receive the phone call at our hotel that we are now permitted to enter Libya on a transit visa. We get 14 days to cross the country, which is a great feat in itself. Normally, 7 day visas are issued for cyclists, but it is slightly dampened by the earlier indication that we had a 20 days coming to us. That aside, the feeling is great: elated, relieved and dappled with a strong sense of privilege. Most people we spoke to either suggested that getting a transit visa for Libya was impossible or they had a ring of sarcasm when they said "good-luck!" On page 127 of the 2010 version of Lonely Planet Africa, it says and I quote: "Since late 2000, visits to Libya have only been possible as part of organised tours and visas are only issued to those with an invitation from a Libyan tour operator." It illustrates that you should always try yourself if you really want something to happen. What someone else believes to be unobtainable, may just be in your reach. We prepare for our 14 day cycle tour of Libya.

tunis billboards

Reflections of Tunis
There were times during the visa process when we thought: "Bugger it, lets just fly to Egypt". This isn't worth the wait and we don't even know if we will get a positive confirmation anyway. Admittedly, we could have cycled out for ten days too, but besides the thought of accomplishing a tonne of web-work, we envisaged celebrating the anniversary of the late Tunisian President's takeover on November 7 would be unique. Unbeknown to us, virtually no-one else did.

We walk to the tourist bureau on this all important day to ask them what festivities are planned. Expecting a long list of engagements to attend, we are amazed to hear that nothing will happen. Absolutely nothing! I'm a little taken aback that no-one is going to do silly dances around the honorary adornment after downing a couple of celebratory Celtia beers. Seems like such a waste of resources: all those flags, ribbons, banners and giant portrait posters embellishing the entire city centre. It is quite evident that a heap of money that was poured into this pomp and self absorbing decoration and no-one is doing anything remotely special. It is simply Sunday as usual. We return to our keyboards for a bit more finger tapping.

When the vision and the mind become a little computer blurred, I take to the streets: wandering around markets and places where people were just getting on with their lives. I find street energy quite fascinating wherever I am. Not only invited around for a fabulous vegetarian couscous dish, Nadia and Olivier take us out to Oudhna for a wander about some ancient Roman ruins. On the way home, we pass an aqueduct, part of a 130 kilometre water passage, which we find even more amazing. The Romans were quite an astounding bunch of engineers and we make a mental note to pass by a second time on our journey out of Tunis. We meet Peter at one of our Libyan Embassy visits and spend a bit of time being in awe of his 11 years of travel. The mosaics at the Bardo Museum are also pretty inspiring, though the Husseinite palace is under renovation until late 2011 and the building-site ambience a little distracting against such ancient glory. Mohamed takes time out to meet us for coffee one afternoon and time is slowly sipped away like a good wine.

Which of course, brings me to one of my favourite subjects: red wine. Tunisia does have a wine industry, but I'm yet to be convinced it is a good one. I tried about ten different varieties ranging from 6 to 12 dinars (€3.50 - 7.00) and they were all quite horrible: tart, acidic, and very weak bodied. The Mornag region produces the nicest of them all, but still nothing to get the palate dancing. I did have the opportunity to have a glass of a 26 dinar wine and it was good, but then again at €15 per bottle, it could have been better. The country only sells local produce and it is virtually impossible to find an imported wine anywhere, which considering the superiority of the grape juice just across the Mediterranean Sea in France, is a dying shame.

And if you are wondering about alcohol in this predominantly Muslim country, then here are some interesting details: It is readily available in supermarkets in Tunis, Sfax and other larger cities. Hotels and upmarket restaurants also sell wine and beer. Outside these places, it is a mystery to me where all the bottles and cans scattered over the road, footpath and in the bush actually come from. While it appears that there is quite a bit of secretive tippling going on all over the country, none of the stores we shop at outside Tunis have alcohol on sale.

In the capital, Monoprix, Carrefour and similar stores have a selection of beer, spirits and local wine. One of Tunis' residents hints to us that Tunisians slurp away the most booze out of any Muslim country in the world. How true this is, I have no idea, but there are certainly an abundance of men hovering around the spirit and wine shelves when they are open. In the city, I never once saw a woman purchasing alcohol. On Fridays, the shutters go down on this section of the supermarket, except at the Carrefour well out of the centre past the port of La Goulette. The catch here is, only non-Muslims are allowed to purchase alcohol. Since you are expected to show your passport to the guard at the entry point, many Muslims wait until an obvious foreigner, like ourselves, wanders past and asks us to collect whatever they want for them. Obviously, they can purchase it; they are just forbidden to enter the booze room. On the other extreme, some of the cashiers refuse to touch a bottle on any day of the week without wrapping a plastic bag around it first.

So at about this moment in my reflections and after all of the song's starting with A on my MP3 player, it is that time of day: to stop the battle against the wind and find somewhere to rest for the night. El Fahs has absolutely nothing as far as a hotel is concerned and it is looking a little grim for pitching the tent as we cycle out past fenced farmland. Just before the town, there were plenty of places to pull off, but that is always the way with wild camping. A farm 10 km after El Fahs (73km; 490m) comes into view with a couple of flat fields. The owner doesn't even think twice about the question "Is it possible to camp here?" We get an immediate and warm welcome. Even though the usual routine is a little rusty, we are fed and ready for bed around 7pm. My eyes are heavy before I have even finished eating and I'll just have to believe Ali, when he tells me he had to remove the light from my head. I can't remember anything until the call to prayer awakens me at 4.30am. The resonating tones are so beautiful, I can't help fall back to sleep again.

typical bathroom in tunisian hotel in Kairouan

Blown from kingdom come to a nice hot tub
Back in the wind and desolation this morning, there is nothing for miles and miles. Visibility is poor and it is no wonder that every homestead dotted in this barrenness has a wealth of olive trees surrounding it. You need some protection; some sort of shelter against the wind, because if you stay out here for too long you'll be blown from the planet or get severely caught up in a prickly pear cactus along the way.

The landscape is not enthralling, I have to agree with other travellers on that, but the people are so warm and friendly. Even the police smile and wave at us. I can count on one hand those who didn't say hello today. There were plenty of folk out here, though I don't know what they all do out in the middle of this bleakness. Wrapped in their colourful turbans and scarves, besides herding and growing olives, the world is pretty much a void. A harsh life no doubt. Still the children get so excited when we cycle by: running along as far as their little legs will carry them hysterical with laughter and hellos. Brings a smile to your face.

The rubbish does not. It is astoundingly depressing. A permanent fixture on the landscape and blown from kingdom come to kingdoms everywhere no doubt. I am saddened watching a women carry out her hessian sack and empty the waste on a pile as big as the small community of cement houses behind her. Not saddened because she is doing it, so much as the realisation that there is obviously no rubbish collection here. No-one knows what to do with the plastic and the tins or the glass. The litter just piles up and then gets blown about. They don't have access to a refuse bin; to the idea of recycling.

And meanwhile their president sits pretty in his immaculately groomed mansion in Tunis, ordering the erection of massive billboards which plaster the city with his portrait. In most images, his hand sits on his heart, but his sincerity is about as authentic as the cheap carpets in the medina. If he really felt something about this empire of his, he would put his money to good use - something he and his family have enough of. Unfortunately, any man who loves looking at his own face, doesn't usually see further than the end of their nose. And that, out here in the heart of the nation, is pretty obvious: the president of Tunisia hasn't seen what a state his country's backyard is in, because it really needs to be cleaned up.

We were expecting it and it happened. We have a bad case of aching arse. Surprisingly, Ali more than me. The wind doesn't help as the cycling effort is is more than what it normally would be. Reaching 12-14 kilometres on the flat is not going to get us into the towns early enough to experience anything. But at the moment we just have to ride with it and see what each afternoon brings. Judging by the last two days cycling, it will be headwind and it will be soul-destroying.

On a more positive point and one I hadn't expected after witnessing the maniac antics of Tunis taxi drivers, the traffic has been exceptionally courteous: trucks included. They give a little toot when they are coming up behind us and think it may be a close call. Otherwise they take a wide berth. We make Kairouan (86km; 365m) by late afternoon and begin the search for Hotel Splendid. Just before the town, Ali enthusiastically remarks that all we have to do is find Rue de 9 Avril. What he didn't count on though, was all the street signs being in Arabic. After asking directions a few times, we find it closed for some untranslatable reason. Hotel Tunis at the end of the street has a room with a bathtub for 40 dinars. What a treat. There's nothing better for a sore bottom, than a good hot water soaking. Actually, I can't think of a better way to relax after being blown in from a long hard day of wind battle.
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