It is good to be on the road again. Everything has quickly fallen into sync: we had crepes for breakfast before breaking from our secluded free-camp this morning, saw a giant spider and then made our way down the road. Par for the course!
Hammamet turned out to be very touristy and rather underwhelming. The medina might have been interesting had it not been for the constant barrage of hawkers trying to guess our nationality and sell us some useless trinket. Actually, it is starting to seem like everyone here is trying to sell us something. Tara and I are both really tired of it; so much so that we've stopped being polite with our refusals. We've also vowed not to visit any more medinas.
On our way out we spent some time relaxing by the shore and then headed inland for Kairouan, home of the fourth most holy mosque in the Islamic world.
Around 4:30PM we decided to call it a day and pulled over by a promising looking field. As we did so, a man on an old tractor passed us. We waved him down and asked if we could pitch our tent on his land. He told us that if we waited for a half an hour, he would come get us and would have a much better place to sleep: in his gate-secured orange grove.
As he chugged away, we discussed our options and talked about how we felt about our new acquaintance. We decided to wait for him. Even though night was falling and we wanted to get settled, we both felt comfortable with the guy and agreed to sit and rest until he returned to escort us to a safe free-camp. Unlike the people we'd met during our morning, he was straightforward, friendly, and didn't seem to want anything from us. It was refreshing.
While we waited, a boy named Ali came to say hello, and he too seemed genuinely nice. We talked about bicycling and he brought us fresh oranges and pomegranates before asking if we were on Facebook! When Mohammed returned, Ali followed us and we walked 200 meters or so to his gated field. They both proceeded to stare at us while we assembled our tent, just as the shepherd had done yesterday.
Though I'm sure we present quite the alien spectacle to someone who is unfamiliar with cycle touring, we secretly decided we hate being stared at. Tara tried to make conversation to temper their intense gazes. Finally, when it was well past dark and we tried to look as uninteresting as possible, chopping potatoes for dinner, Mohammed and Ali let us be. We ate, snuggled, watched a couple episodes of Arrested Development, and fell fast, fast asleep.
Around 10PM, we awoke to a man just outside our tent, saying "C'est moi, Mohammed!" Mohammed had come to our tent with dinner! At first we appreciated this friendly gesture but the situation quickly devolved into one of the most uncomfortable experiences we've had since our dramatic encounter in the ocean side town of Newton by the Sea.
We had both been fast asleep and neither of us was even remotely hungry; I'd made a huge cheesy fried potato dinner not more than an hour ago. We didn't want to be rude so we accepted the food, thinking he'd leave and we could save it for tomorrow. Not even close.
For the next 15 minutes, crouched in our vestibule, Mohammed proceeded to eat dinner with us, practically force-feeding Tara and I roasted lamb in the process. After a token bite of bread, lamb, and salad mechouia, I began politely refusing his persistent offers. It felt very much like another strange meeting we had with a man on Ile de Noirmoutier who wouldn't let us leave until we drank his disgusting tea (I flat out refused a second cup).
Towards the end of the unwelcome meal, Mohammed became increasingly forward. He tried to place food in Tara's mouth. He tried to place food in my mouth. He touched and petted Tara's hand in a lingering gesture which she recoiled from violently. Then he said he was going to sleep in our tent with us.
Normally one or both of us gets a bad vibe when we meet someone we should probably avoid but we had been honestly relieved by his seeming lack of agenda at our initial meeting. No triggers tripped, this came totally out of left field. At first, we thought he was joking. Tara laughed him off in French, hoping to discourage this ridiculous idea. Then he insisted again, with a smile and another attempted hand-pet.
Sitting in our tent just inches from this man, every muscle in my body snapped absolutely taut in visceral attention. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. A surge of electricity coursed from the base of my neck down my spine. It took a serious, conscious measure of control not to spring forward and attack what was now clearly an intruder threatening our safety.
A hair trigger away from violence, I spoke over Mohammed with one word and fire in my eyes (according to Tara) every time he opened his mouth. No. With Tara and I simultaneously refusing, he eventually backed down after a good minute of insisting and slimy weaseling about how he had no place else to sleep.
With a laugh and trailing "just kidding…" the tension lifted ever so slightly, and he offered to bring us coffee in the morning. We quickly agreed and he left. As soon as he was gone we breathed a huge sigh of relief. We discussed packing camp and leaving immediately. Given that it was very dark and the shoulder of the road was very narrow, we eventually decided to stay and set about Mohammed-proofing our tent.
We propped and locked the bikes up in front of the door on Tara's side, so that if anyone tried to get in, they'd have to knock the bikes over, waking us up in the process. Then we set the alarm for 5am, got out our arnis bastons and tried to get some rest.