Backpacks, food, water, camera, and an extra liter and a half of fuel strapped to the newest member of our team, a Motobecane Mobylette, model AV88, we wave farewell to Giovanni and Lorenzo and "speed" away v e r y s l o w l y in the direction of Tozeur. People stare at us, laughing and smiling as we circle the round-about at a snail's pace. Men working outside on their own scooters stop what they're doing when they see us pass; they wave us onward seeming to love the site of two foreigners aboard their nations' favorite mode of transportation. Headscarves expertly tied, Motobecane rattling away dutifully beneath us, we officially feel at home in Tunisia.
Just out of Douz, the land opens up into rocky orange desert dotted with scrubby bushes. Though the morning is cool we take a break after just ten kilometers to check on our scooter and make sure we're in no danger of overheating. We're going to take it slow, stopping frequently at first until we can trust the machine. Content with the check-over, Tyler tries to fire up our scooter. A running start produces nothing but sputters! Oh no! Assuring me that everything is fine, he peeks at the engine and quickly finds the problem: the spark plug wire has fallen off. A few seconds later, we're puttering down the road again!
On the way, we talk about possible names for the Motobecane (Ali, Mohammed, Youssef, etc.) and decide to christen him "Habib" after the late president Habib Bourgiba. When we pass through our first town, we cheer and congratulate Habib for a job well done, and hope his oomph will hold out for the remainder of our 100km+ journey.
Shortly after, I see a lively date market in the town's oasis so we stop for a break. Tyler stays with our scooter while I carry 200 millime over to a vendor to see how many dates I can purchase with my change. To my delight, he fills my hands with so many I can hardly keep them from falling in to the sand below. He refuses my meager change and wishes us well on our journey. We continue on through small towns and large, shady oases where workers bag bunches of dates. We pass many trucks full of colorful crates, stacked high in their beds for the journey to markets in the surrounding area.
It feels so good to have the wind in our faces once more as we slowly take in the scenery. We're on the road again adventuring together, well within each others' earshot for excited chatting and enthusiastic impromptu singalongs. We're so happy we can scarcely contain ourselves. Only averaging just a few more kilometers per hour than we normally do on our bicycles, we feel completely at home and settle in for the long ride. We comment continuously how grateful we are not to be cooped up in a louage, traveling six times our speed, zooming down the road blind to the people and landscape we pass through. I decide the world really is best seen on two wheels.
The scenery is sandy and scrubby, reminding us of the barren beauty of Kerkennah. Slowly, the bushes disappear and we are left with endless orangey brown flatness. The openness of the landscape combined with our new mode of transportation is exhilarating. I am especially glad that we are on our own for today's crossing of Chott el Jerid, a great salt flat that is supposed to be beautiful. I know I'll want to hop off and take photos!
As we ride, patches of sparkling white begin to appear in the brown landscape. The spots grow larger and soon we are passing small mounds of collected salt! We give Habib a break and climb down an embankment to explore, touch the ground, and taste the sodium deposits. At my request, Tyler chips a white, salty chunk from the ground with his knife and I pocket it to season future recipes and conjure memories of what is quickly turning into another one of the greatest days on our trip.
In exhilaratingly fast succession, the white patches turn into great bands of salt that stripe the land. Bands merge, and suddenly we are riding on a road surrounded everywhere by bright, blinding white. The shimmering ground becomes one with the sky and it is hard to tell where the land ends and the clouds begin. We are both enraptured by nature's blank canvas of luminous salt. Unable to resist, Tyler pulls off the pavement on a path made by campers, motorcycles, and cars, and drives our trusty Motobecane 88 out into a sea of brilliant white.
It is breathtaking. We stand Habib up with his kickstand and hop off to walk around, marveling at the landscape. I am amazed by how similar the salt feels to snow. Slightly damp, it even cakes on the tires, feeling just like perfect "packing snow", good for making salt men, salt forts, and salt balls. I mean to attempt a salt angel, but instead I just lay there, in dazzled awe of my surroundings. Our yearning for a white Christmas is fulfilled, just a few days late.
Rejuvenated from the inspiring experience, we ride Habib back out to the pavement and hit the road once more. The land slowly loses its glittering white mantle, bit by bit returning to the orangey brown patches of sand and rock we've become so used to.
Soon there is no trace of the salt flat's former glory and we are again in the desert, only thirty kilometers from Tozeur. When we were leaving Douz, everyone told us we were crazy to even attempt riding a scooter all the way to Tozeur. We're used to ignoring doom and gloom by now. Here we are, almost at our destination, traveling along without a hitch!
By the time we arrive, our butts are aching and our whole bodies are vibrating. We are tired and hungry, but exuberant about our first successful ride on our new Motobecane Mobylette 88, Habib.