In went the debit card and out came a train ticket from
Wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting on the heater wearing a wet suit top and all my clothes, the wind sucked the heat out of hunched over shoulders as I rode from Birmingham to Manchester to catch the next leg of this budget airline adventure. The passenger window was stuck halfway down, or half way up, depending on how you look at life. It was zero degrees at midnight and the meter was running at two hundred and twenty bucks. I love
The story of three hundred bucks in
I am embarrassed to say that I don’t have any close Muslim friends. I have never spent time in a Muslim country, and I was expecting to be resented for my American roots, and for once uncomfortable in Khakis shorts, and flip flops. I was even timid about flying my American flag while sailing along the rural coastline in case someone decided to shoot at the boat. It might seem silly but I have embedded images from the Mahgreb of Algerian fundamentalist; training suicide bombers, and plotting against the spread of western culture. All my experience with
It was an amazing entry for me, because my previous associations were triggering fear and influencing my interpretations of the people even though
I filled a day bag and grabbed my camera. I wanted to cross
They them selves were places you could buy more post cards, or T-shirts, get haggled and pay foreigner prices. So in-fact you can avoid them all, and you wont miss anything. Who cares about a bunch of date palms, or a ten foot waterfall. It’s the emperors new robe, yet package tourists file in by the hundreds to see a bunch of contrived crap that is selected as
The current generation; the old ways, the ancient skills, the traditions, the hand made rugs, the faith, the hospitality, the food, the ceremonial way of eating together out of one bowl on the floor. Its all that stuff you cant see because someone is waving a cheap ticket for an air-conditioned bus and a ten minute camel ride.
What I discovered by setting out alone into small towns in the south of
You will also bump into others, who are traveling in the same way. So you wont be alone for long. I don’t speak French or Arabic, but I was lead by the hands of children back to their welcoming families, fed an elaborate meal, my stinky shoes removed and given a bed for rest while the mother wove a carpet by henna tattooed hands beside me as I slept. Staring at all of this, and crying inside from the unimaginable kindness is hard to describe.
One day one after missing a train to the first postcard destination, I was stranded at a lonely train stop for twelve hours. My watch had been on
One hour was passed teaching knots with the cord from a cell phone charger. We joked around as much as we could and they asked about all the famous people they knew from
The main conductor, father of ten children had a smile that beamed when he listened, when he talked and even when he stared at the wall. He smiled at life. He told me about all of his sons and daughters. With hands, faces, and basic words we went on and on about the difference between
They asked me to comeback and stay on my return journey. They were officers, and I was a casual traveler, we were now friends and we hugged at the end. They three waved till I was out of site and I unpacked my satchel of almonds and laid them out on a seat in front, beaming with inspiration, but with the thought “these aren’t just almonds, they have a story and I’ll never be able to tell it.” I tried to take a picture of the almonds in a way but my photos just couldn’t tell the story either. The picture couldn’t match my warm feeling and overwhelming inspiration, it was that feeling after telling a story, seeing the blank faces, and saying, well… “you had to be there”.
In a 4x4 headed out to some Tunisian Oasis, post card number three, I sat next to an Egyptian man with a black cloth wrapped around his head and over his shoulders. His wife wore a cloth over her hair and her hands were elaborately tattooed with henna ink. They spoke in Arabic and we didn’t speak. I didn’t understand his dark eyes and furled brow. I played with my new camera. Herded together out to the first vista point, I could tell they wanted a picture of the two of them so I gestured for the camera and wife said “yes, please that would be great, thank you!” She smiled brightly with her perfect English, and confident eye contact. They were teachers in
I asked all my stupid questions, because I really didn’t know. “What does ‘Salam Alekim’ mean?” and is it ok for me to say it as a foreigner? It means “Peace be with you”, and Tunisians would be thrilled to hear it from foreigners. And “can I take pictures of elderly Muslim men still wearing costumes from the Star wars trilogy, or the women with Tattooed faces with out stealing their souls?” -Ask first.
We had a lot of fun and after two days, and they asked me to come back to her family’s house, but I had to decline only because they were on their honeymoon, and again receiving such hospitality was uncomfortable for me. I was filled again with inspiration and warmth. I was relieved to answer those basic questions. I had made friends. I learned about a Henna Tattoo ritual, and a few Arabic phrases to warm the path in front of me. I was re-associating the images of Muslim culture, the clothes and the language, and they felt warm and welcoming to me now. For me soon as I spent more time in the desert region I would learn the utility of a veiled face, as the sand, sun and heat penetrates everything, two yards of cloth can create a nice little barrier to any weather, and I now fancy it.
Next postcard was a gateway town to the desert. I had arranged a night stay with a local, via couchsurfer.org and planned to meet at the bus station. I had met an American backpacker along the way and we chose to travel together for a few days and maybe venture into the dessert.
Mansour, a French expatriate, renamed after converting to Islam, met us at the bus station and weaved us through dirt roads and shanty cinderblock houses to a painted metal door with a ceramic plate glued to the center of it. His house was more than we expected; a courtyard with trees, a ceramics studio, one shy turtle, green grass and a street cat.
Our room had two nice beds and a beautiful hand woven carpet. We were in for an adventure. He fixed us tea, fed us, then strolled us around town, shaking hands and smiling with most of the people who we passed. We wanted to go to the desert, and he knew the Bedouin guides that would take us. He arranged for us to go camping in two days time. We thought, well ok, that is a ways away, what the heck are we supposed to do until then?
The adventure at hand became exploring life in a small desert town through the life of a man who has been traveling continuously for thirty years.
Mansour has sixty years and mysteriously possesses more energy, mental clarity, curiosity and refined skills than I have ever known. He rose with the sun, skipped around like a teenager and always gave you his complete attention. If I were an artist with words I could paint a picture of him that would share an angle of who this guy is. Books could be written on his life, but his wisdom, where do you begin, how do you communicate his grasp on life’s lessons, his proximity to enlightenment.
I can talk about him because my words will be read as “weird or mystic” and pass right by. A life teacher, a guide, a magician is out in the southern half of
Monsour brings life to clay, capturing emotions and people in the faces of his sculptures with the stroke of a brush. I was puzzled by this guy out here in the desert, making amazing sculptures about as far away as you could possibly be from someone who would buy them. I spent a few days in his town and had some amazing experiences before and after we set out for the dunes. That’s another story.
The women are working, cleaning house, feeding the family, and the guys sit unemployed at the café. So I tried it. Five mind numbing minutes passed and someone sat next to me. We chatted for a few moments, and another guy sat. Soon we had five guys and we were laughing, smoking, and drinking tea. One of the guys asked me to come back to his house for lunch. I declined, because I couldn’t I was weary of a scam, and besides I had only sat for fifteen minutes and I wanted to see how long I could go before I went crazy. There was a festival going that day and we made plans to attend it together. So he left. A moment passed and a second guy asked me to go to his house for cuscus. I declined again and he strolled off. Then number three guy asked and I caved.
We walked for fifteen minutes into another neighborhood on the other side of town. Again a metal door with a nice courtyard. A beautiful blanket laid out and a place was prepared for only me. A large hand painted dish was brought out full of vegetables and cuscus. Then a plate of olives, bread, some sauces and then a bowl of oranges, dates and a pot of tea. I was being served like a king, except this was the fourth day in the same clothes and my hair stood straight up supported by dust and grease. Suddenly I realized that everyone from the café was there. The four others from my table were all brothers in fact and they lived in the house including the waiter and barista. There were six brothers and they had brought a stranger home. One brother, who spoke some English, sat with me and ate until I was full and a mattress was brought out with a pillow and I was instructed to take a nap. The mother then came out, with beautiful henna hands and began to weave a carpet on a vertical loom in front of me as I slept.
I was broken. Imagine a traveler, at a bus stop café, sitting, lingering, trying to stretch out a cup of coffee in soiled forth day clothes. Here, the kids bring them home, feed them, and offer them a bed in the shade within their family walls to find rest. I can’t imagine that happening at home.
Again, I was humbled, filled with hope and racing with the need to share the experience. I needed to tell people about these people. To tell them to skip the museums, skip the postcard racks and seek an experience with these people.
It happens when you are alone. It happens when you are lost or already late. It happens when you take a wrong turn or miss your train.
I meticulously recorded the money spent on this trip. A planned three day trip, turned into over three weeks. Paying for accommodation on one occasion and quickly falling far behind in the cost of food due to the tremendous hospitality to strangers in the South of Tunisia. I spent five hundred dinar in three weeks. That is more than three hundred fifty
For one of those weeks I had two dessert porters, three camels, and a trek around the Saharan desert. Then on the last day, National Geographic was filming a documentary and I was paid 80 Dinar for five shots playing a “westerner” trying to escape an Iraqi prison in the Gulf War.
So I was back up fifty US. So that’s what three hundred bucks could get you in
Being vulnerable, sharing what you have, following strangers down side streets and trusting people can get you around the world. I continually meet people who are doing more, seeing more, with significantly less.