March 11, 2010

Closed wallet, opened mind

In went the debit card and out came a train ticket from Birmingham to Manchester. Easy enough, so when is the train? The reader board was blank, the tellers long gone. Haha England, tricky machine, the last train had left two hours before. There goes fifty dollars down the tube J.

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 England. I love it. They love me to. Eight hours in England is one way to spend three hundred bucks.

The story of three hundred bucks in Tunisia is more than I will ever be able to capture. Herman Hesse wrote a brilliant little book called the “Journey East” that out lines a grand adventure, but describes the limits of putting life down on paper. He couldn’t write about it, because his words kept reducing the memories, leaving out details, leaving out magic moments, smells, fears, and the synchronicities that come with travel. The journey was too grand and the task of capturing it would take not only his life but the lives of many more talented than him self.

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 North Africa, and other Muslim regions have been exclusively through television. So for the first time I got to take my own pictures and experience what it means to be a foreigner on Muslim soil.

It was an amazing entry for me, because my previous associations were triggering fear and influencing my interpretations of the people even though Tunisia is westernized, European, fully developed in parts and by no means extreme. Its Europe. Yet the traditional garb and veiled faces put me on edge. The few traditional outfits that I passed made me feel like I was surrounded by militants, and that I should hide my identity. It is amazing how strong and how deep ones own propaganda can rest.

I filled a day bag and grabbed my camera. I wanted to cross Tunisia with out the awareness of valuable items to loose. Finding a map at a post card stand, I put an X on the map where each post card image was taken and sought to go take my own pictures in each of those places, and to do it all with three hundred bucks, to match my time in England. Easily I managed to see most the places on the postcard stand in three weeks, but mid way I gave up because the places lost their importance. The places on the post cards offered nothing.

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 Tunisia’s experience. The beauty of Tunisia, I feel, are the remnants, the bits of its culture that have survived a battering by western culture.

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 Tunisia, is that if you are foreign, you will undoubtedly be invited to peoples homes; fed, offered a bed for rest and given everything the people have.

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 Cape Verde time for three days and I hadn’t realized it. One moment alone and a boy my age asked me something in Arabic, or French probably, and I said “weah” and he lead me into the train conductors office where two official looking dudes sat watching the train grid on a board with little lights and red and green buttons. They smiled and sat me behind the desk in one of their chairs and asked me if I wanted a coffee. “Weah”. The phones would ring, trains would pass, and each of them would leave to do little jobs through out the day as I melted into the scean. I kept that seat in the middle the whole time. We broke some bread and ate chocolate and cheese. A man on a donkey lead cart arrived after the sun set and delivered fresh local dates. Long periods of silence filled the time. Periods of silence are part of life in Tunisia and I was anxiously trying to fill them with a pocket full of party tricks. We collected almonds from a tree outside and filled an hour cracking them with a salvaged block of timber. They wrapped up a pile of the nuts in a newspaper and put them in my bag for the journey.

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 America. Little attempts at communication, elaborate gestures, and laughter helped to break the silence, that only I was aware of. Some times you can’t talk but you exchange a connection with certain people and this was one of those magic moments.

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 America and Tunisia. When my train finally came I felt like staying. I felt that I had found what I was looking for.

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 Kuwait, on their honeymoon in Tunisia, where she was born. They transformed. My interpretation transformed. Instantly they were playful and he was playful like a child. I didn’t understand their dress and had prejudged them and had been closed off. We began to run around in the canyons with a new curiosity, trying to take silly profile pictures for Facebook. In one of the canyons a Tunisian guide gave her a stone that he broke in half revealing purple crystals inside that I thought was the most amazing thing, so she gave it to me.

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 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 Tunisia at the gate of the real Sahara, and if you go and you are ready you can find him. He is the cliché catch phrase “where one looks at the desert and sees nothing, there is everything.” I got scared because everything was there and I had to look no further. I wasn’t ready. Also I was overwhelmed by hospitality, without a means to reciprocate. So after three weeks I had to go find my boat again.

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.

Tunisia, is filled with Cafes that are filled exclusively with men who sit all day drinking the same tiny cup of coffee and staring at passers by. May be they are waiting to be invited home for cuscus but it is a phenomenon that I do not understand.

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. Tunisia is like any-other place. The people are the experience. And you cant buy it, you cant prepare it or plan it. The path does not exist after you, it was created by you, your blunders, and your vulnerable ness that people observed and responded to with kindness.

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 US. A month’s local wages, but I went all out.

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 Tunisia and the myth that travel cannot be afforded, is busted. Its not in the guide books and its not for sale, it begins when you close that wallet and open your mind. The cost is what you give up back at home, the people you miss, your family, the cultural holidays, the sense of community etc.

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.

February 05, 2010

Open Ocean

Meandering back through the Spanish islands we set off for the Cape Verdes. After leaving the Canary- land/sea breeze we motored for a hundred miles to reach the trade winds.

We had an epic crossing. The new wind vane “The Eskimo” worked magically and the electric auto pilot “Captain Dan / Meggie” worked sweet when the wind was to light for the Vane.

We installed an 80 watt solar panel earlier on our "boys trip" so cold beer and music could be enjoyed along the way. The conditions were ideal for the self steering mechanisms and they held out for the whole eight days of following wind. So what did we do?

We made it look easy. I read three books about sailing around the world, and learned to splice cored braided line. Why not?

We played card games (BS), studied Spanish and French, caught fish, let fish go, practiced using a sextant, looked at the map of the world and contemplated all the options.

In fact the primary activity became contemplating the endless number of scenarios, studying wind patterns and fueling our endless ambitions.

We had a two scheduled parties, one for the “halfway mark” and one for the Double Bruyn’s 10,000 mile.

Then there was that spontaneous night when we wore costumes, brought out the disco ball, got completely fueled on rum (thanks Monsie), sang songs and danced the night away under the stars and moon light, then slept all the next day. Someone coherent stayed with "The Eskimo" at all times, thanks Ludo!

After steering us towards Orion's belt for a wonderful detour Ritchie slept for two days, but he was the champion of entertainment that night and has become my new idol.

We sailed at a leisurely pace.

It’s wonderful to be out in the ocean in a warm climate with consistent wind and swell.

The conditions were ideal. There was no rush to end the experience.

We found a rhythm.

Sailing under a reefed main and no foresail, so that the boat stayed dry and reasonably level.

We relaxed from the normal worries of coastal sailing.

Out in the Ocean, where the weather is stable there are no rocks to hit, seldom boats to collide with, and once she’s trimmed properly she’ll sail her self. So keeping watch means: just watching.

Watch the wind power the boat in that magical way, watch the wind vane mysteriously gyroscope our helm straight, watch ones surroundings for that new depth of awareness.

That first glance out to sea seems void and abysmal. What can be described as "mind numbing" begins to show you things, and becomes more and more interactive. When you are steering you can watch the GPS to hold your course. You can also watch a compass. You can also watch a little piece of string and its angle to the wind. You can keep the wind on the back of your neck, or the side of your cheek depending on how you sit. You can note the angle of the boat to the swell and its motion. If anything changes, goes wrong or you loose your bearings, you can refer back to any of these.

We played around with the sextant. We found our selves within one hundred miles of where the GPS put us. It’s fun to begin to relate the map of stars in the sky to the way we use maps of land. The constellations pass like features on the landscape. They also break the night up just as the sun breaks up the day. Orion’s Belt arcs across as the night goes by. It rises as the sun sets, it peaks in the sky then sets to the west. We broke the night watch into four-three hour shifts. Correspondingly Orion’s path through the sky was broken into consistent quarters. And over our passage south the Southern Cross noticeably rose as the North Star sunk in the horizon to the north. We were passing constellations like landmarks on the map. If we were more familiar with the map of the stars it would be easy to have a sense of time passing and have a feel for your location on the surface of the earth.

It all gets lost in the street lights at home.