Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours

Dispatch 14 - Tunis

 

. Click to enlarge The last ride starts spectacularly with a beautiful view of the sea but unfortunately end anti-climatic -- unless you have a passion for urban cycling. The start is a continuation of the dramatic cliff-side road and tremendous coastal views that we left off with the day before; winding along cut into the mountainside a couple hundred feet above the ocean.

Past the hills and back on to the alluvial plains, some of the grace is retain in the orange groves and vineyards that are the backbone of the agriculture economy of the Soliman area. At the town of Bordj Cedra any aesthetic ends pretty abruptly. It is one form or another the route is a highway and strip-city for the last 20 km (12 miles) into town. The are a couple consumer oriented commercial centers with street trees, sidewalks, people and traffic signals which Click to enlargedo some traffic calming and add a living element to the corridor. Mostly we put our heads down, pedaled through it and didn't say much until we got to the front door of the hotel (where the gray ride was forgotten as we celebrated the circuit and mugged for each other's cameras).

I did have an interesting encounter on the last section. For about 10 kilometers (a half hour) I was riding pretty much in tandem with a Tunisian cyclist. That in itself is unique because he was clearly not a racer and there is virtually no utilitarian cycling around Tunis. Eventually we started a conversation that continued intermittently, traffic permitting, for several kilometers:

He asked about me, the trip and my home. He was happy to meet an American.

He offered that we has something in common, we were both ride "with a purpose", but the purpose was very different. He did the ride three times a week. I said, "It is nice to be cycling, regardless of the purpose."

He offered that he was going "to check in." Well, I guess that is different from why I am cycling.

"Was that for business," I asked.

"It was with the police," he replied, not saying that it wasn’t business.

"Oh," I said. Not quite sure what to think. And we rode single file for a while to handle some congestion. When the conversation resumed he offer that he was a student in the early 1990s. I knew this was relevant to his early comments, but I couldn’t reconstruct what I needed to about Tunisian history to make sense of it, so I asked what he had been studying.

"Medicine." He was on his way to becoming a doctor. But that didn’t give me any clue to the puzzle. After a pause he offered that he had been arrested in the student demonstrations. Now it was starting to make sense, but I couldn’t remember the details of the 1992 disturbances. Had those demonstration been because of the democracy movement or by labor for worker’s rights, or something else?

"What was the topic?" I asked.

"Islamic fundamentalism."

"Oh, lovely," I thought. Not the usual kind of person I would expect to befriend me or that I, myself, would search out. As a group they have a reputation of being very anti-America, to the point of committing violent acts against Americans, but he did show any animosity. I knew I still didn’t have the full story, though wasn’t sure if I wanted to ask as I imagined the worst. But I didn’t have to ask. As we rode along he provide the missing details: He had been arrested in the demonstrations, was imprisoned for five years, had been released a year ago, had been able to resume his education and had to check in with a specific police bureau. A trip which he made by bicycle.

He seemed willing enough to talk so I decided to try a bolder question: "Did he think that Islamic fundamentalism in Tunisia would go the way of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria?" (Reports from Algeria are that Islamic fundamentalist militants have slaughtered about 12,000 civilians, in a virtual civil war.)

"No!" There was a pause and a few more revolutions of the crank, but my friend wasn’t particularly pensive. I gave him a look asking for more explanation. "The Algerian fundamentalists are militant, the Tunisian are political," he explained. But I clearly remember that the Algerian’s had only been political until an election that they were poised to win was cancelled by the military. I also didn’t feel like pursuing the line of questioning. We rode along together for a couple kilometers more have intermittent lighter conversation before he indicate he would have to be turning off. We wished each other well and I wonder what I would be missing not have tried harder to develop a friendship with some who at least once was active in the fundamentalist movement…….

Once at the hotel, things wound down; bike were packed for shipping, final souvenirs were purchased and last minute business was transacted. All that was left was the final awards dinner.

Tour Awards:

  • Tom -- Hit the Road Jack (see Dispatch 6)

  • Monica -- Sweet and Steady

  • Michael -- Most Improved

  • David -- There is no David like David (It would be nice to think that this is the use of "David" in the first instance is in a biblical sense where it means "king".)

In addition we reminisced about the best of the trip: best hotel, best meal, best ride, etc. It was a great trip.

Addendum

One way to add some civility to the chaos of returning to the city is to stop for a glass of traditional mint tea with pine nuts.  Here we are being elegantly served at a cafe in the center of Hammam Lif.

A popular activity once we return to Tunis is souvenir shopping.  One uniquely Tunisian item is the chechia (red felt hat).  It is all that much better as a souvenir because you can watch them being made, get a custom fitting and then model the finished product.

     
 

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