The man at the reception desk of our hotel wrote a note for us this morning before we ventured off for one last futile attempt at acquiring Libyan visas. The swirly, scribbly Arabic writing said (we hope) "Dear Libyan Embassy, this is our last day in Tunis, please can you help us, is there anything (official/unofficial) we can do to secure our visas? Please?" We were even prepared for bribery if it came to it. Unfortunately our pleas landed on deaf ears. We felt utterly defeated as we were turned away a final time. It was difficult to think of starting the complicated task of route planning again at square one.
Feeling glum, we promised to put the disappointment behind us and really be present here and now, in a country that did want us. Cycling into busy, honking, downtown Tunis it felt really good to be back on the road. After a wild goose chase to find a map-carrying bookstore, I couldn't help but laugh. As usual, the path we took was incredibly roundabout, featuring several different sets of directions, plenty of confusion, helpful people and lots of backtracking.
As we set off, finally away from Tunis, it felt freeing. Practically every Tunisian we passed smiled, waved, or said "hello!" "bonjour!" "salut!" "salaam!". It felt a little like we were in a parade. Sometimes it was tricky to make sure I didn't slip off the road into the gravely shoulder, I was so distracted returning everyone's waves and hellos. A young boy on a bicycle even chased us down, pedaling his tiny legs off to keep pace with us for a hundred meters or so.
Tunisians are notoriously crazy drivers, but I didn't really get that sense today. They may drive a little erratically at times but they always seemed to notice us and take care, just as they do when passing donkey carts or slow scooters. As we stuck to the right side of the road (not the rough gravel shoulder) we rode past town after town, each with its own mosque's minaret gracing the skyline.
In one village every street was filled with stalls selling a bizarre arrangement of things from old shoes to table saws. There was even what looked to be a sheep market! In the grassy ditch by the side of the road, shepherds milled around inspecting each flock. There were even a few tarps set up as tents with small fires glowing inside. I thought it would be fun to ask if we could camp in one, but it was only 1:00 and we were eager to continue.
Every kilometer or so we passed a fruit stand featuring oranges, clementines, prickly pears, and pomegranates. Sometimes more elaborate stalls had garlands of banana bunches hung for a festive look. We also passed several CD shops blasting Arabic dance music on what sounded like broken speakers. Just about everywhere there were the usual crowds of men playing cards and smoking chicha at dreary looking bars.
For lunch we stopped at a roadside restaurant. There were various carcasses hanging right in front of the counter while two men chopped animal ribs with giant cleavers in swift, competent motions. The man in front smiled at us, whacked his knife into the wooden chopping block, and was ready to take our order. We didn't really know how the whole operation worked, but eventually we managed to buy the lamb ribs he had cut seconds before. With hands dripping in animal blood, he plopped them in the basket, and then handed us our change, only 8 dinar! We're quickly discovering that eating out in Tunisia might actually be cheaper than buying groceries.
When I asked the butcher if we could take pictures, he laughed, said of course, and then started posing for us. Then he started speaking in harsh-sounding Arabic and trying to look threatening with the knife, as if poking fun at the way many westerners would think of him as a "scary muslim" or maybe even a terrorist. This really got the other guy laughing and we couldn't help but crack up with them.
When we were done taking pictures he stopped his routine and brought us and our lamb chops around back. We were then introduced to the guys manning huge smoking grills which were emitting some heavenly fragrances. With our meat on the fire, the friendly butcher showed us to our table in the shade.
Six or seven stray cats lounged around, scavenging for any little scrap of meat that might make its way to the ground. A young man in a bright red waiter's outfit brought us some freshly baked flatbreads and a dish of my current favorite food here—salad mechouia, a mix of tomatoes and peppers, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with two or three cured green olives. A few minutes later, our lamb was ready and our waiter brought it out to us, steaming with lime wedges on top. It was good.
When I went around back to ask where the bathroom was, our "terrorist" was taking his break. He sat in a chair with his feet up, casually eating a clementine. He offered me half of it before telling me where the restroom was. It was probably the best clementine I've ever eaten.
As we were packing up, we chatted with a few workers and patrons, and once again fielded loads of questions about our trip. It is so amusing that no matter where we are, people are often most amazed by where we are headed today. We haven't even told them about our trip yet, and already they can scarcely believe our plans to bike 50 kilometers away! "Hammamet?!" "You're going all the way to Hammamet by bicycle!? WHOA, CRAZY!"
Carrying on we continued on pancake flat roads with orange groves and olive trees on either side. There was the occasional random donkey tied to a tree, and many small flocks of sheep grazing on the shoulder. Before entering crowded, touristy Hammamet, we decided to free-camp in a secluded field.
We thought our spot was very well-hidden, when all of the sudden I looked up to see a huge flock of sheep just meters away! Tyler and I ran over to the shepherd, just to make sure it was okay with him if we stayed. He agreed and so we continued setting up, albeit clumsily from lack of practice. The man just stood there and stared at us.
Tyler and I whispered back and forth—why is he still there? Why is he staring at us?? And then we realized it was probably for the same reason we take pictures of donkey carts and men selling fruit at fruit stands. Because, to us, it is "exotic" and we've never seen it before. He stared at us for a good ten minutes before continuing along with his sheep, only occasionally pausing to look back and wave at me as I made dinner.