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Harmattan

a travel blog by roel krabbendam


Harmattan: "A dry wind from the northeast or east that blows in West Africa especially from late November until mid-March. It originates in the Sahara as a desert wind and extends southward to about 5°N in January. It is associated with the high pressure area that lies over the northwest Sahara in winter."

Inspired by my michelin map of north africa, and (ahem) encouraged by my lovely spouse, i'm riding my bike (its a dutch thing) across the sahara desert between December 2006 and March 2007.
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Expectations and preconceptions

Boston, United States


Results of a year spent reading up on Africa:

1. I will meet:
kidnappers ("Niger captors threaten to kill Italians:radio", Reuters, 25 August 2006)
child soldiers (www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/people/features/childrensrights)
drug smugglers ("Austrian tourists missing in Sahara", BBC News, 5 April 2003)
voodoo worshipers ("Is Voodoo a force for good or bad?", BBC 1 January 2006)
snakes, scorpions, mosquitoes and flies (The Great Sahara, Wellard)
2. I can buy:
contraband meteorites (www.saharamet.com/meteorite/data/sahara/nwa/html)
children ("Shameless Star Buys African Souvenir", NYPost, 12 October 2006)
3. I can't buy:
uranium ("What I Didn't Find in Africa", NYTimes, 6 July 2003)
4. I can sell:
hazardous waste ("UN Warning on E-Waste Mountain", BBC News, 27 November 2006)

...should be good.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 14, 2006 from Boston, United States
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Minor indignities

Paris, France


7 hours in a dark cabin feeling the blood flow cease to your legs, eyes closed but unable to sleep, simply waiting: to arrive, to start, to cease simply imagining this trip. I remember a time when flying fascinated me, and I could sleep on a flight. No more.

Air France charged me $125 extra to send my bicycle. Could have been worse...


The TSA allows one quart-size clear plastic ziplock bag filled with containers each holding no more than 3 ounces of liquid, as long as this bag is not concealed. A tube of Tom’s toothpaste holds 6 ounces: who knew? They confiscate my toothpaste in Boston, and to get my sunblock through I go through the entire wait-in-line-for-10-minutes-remove-shoes-and-coats-expose-laptop-and-all-other-electronics-pass-through-metal-detector-answer-innocuous-questions routine twice.

Dinner menu:
1. Supreme de poulet au paprika
2. Haricots verts
3. Pommes de terre a la lyonnaise
4. Camembert
5. Gateau avoine-raisin
6. Vin rouge

I watch a French movie about a French president corrupted by power: I think it ends with him considering the murder of his own daughter to protect his agenda. My French is exceptionally bad. The movies are unedited for content: no American prurience regarding what your kids see on the screen of the stranger sitting next to them.

When Paris arrives, it is as lights in the darkness outside, surprisingly close. It looks just as Boston did when we left, and for the briefest moment it feels like coming home. It isn’t Paris, anyway, but suburb after suburb until we touch down.


At Charles de Gaulle I suddenly discover that I’m booked on a different flight for Tunis then I purchased over the internet, and that my 8 hour layover is now only an hour. I was watching my bike box and my toothpaste tube instead of my ticket, I guess.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 19, 2006 from Paris, France
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Sleep

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia


The sun rises as I board the flight for Tunis, and when we land it is without my bicycle. The one I paid $125 extra to send…I guess I forgot to pay for it to arrive. It is overcast and cold here.

My fluent Arabic comes in handy as I describe a very large cardboard box containing a very important toy. Everyone is very nice, and the bike will be here at 7pm. I find a very entrepreneurial cab driver…well, he finds me…and I overpay him to get me to the hotel, where the room smells vaguely of unwashed toilets. The promised internet access is unavailable. I call my wife and discuss my day with her answering machine.


(Look ma...no hair)

Sleep. The fact that I just left the two girls I love the most for this hare-brained adventure won’t feel as awful in the morning, but it certainly does now.

Sleep.




permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 20, 2006 from Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Smell

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia


Still here...sleep and open windows do wonders. Thanks for your comments: they really make my day. I woke up to the smell of the hotel soap I used last night (fabulous), and stepped outside to the smell of Orange trees in full fruit (wow!). Jump into an ocean of perfume, swim to the bottom, and then swallow until you are ocean inside and out: that was the smell of Orange trees.

The bicycle arrived as promised: intact and, with minor adjustments, running beautifully: thank you, thank you, thank you to John and Larry at Pedal Power in Acton, Massachusetts, with kudos to the folks at Independent in Somerville as well: this bike rocks!

I did have a frantic 20 minutes (20 minutes!!! You think you know 20 minutes? Pay $2,000 to fly to a foreign country where you don't speak the language to find that you might have come for nothing: then you'll know 20 minutes!!!) looking for the pedals in my bike bags, thinking I'd left them at home, thinking honestly that it would be quite typical of me, thinking of the incomparable hassle I would face in finding the same clip species here as my Algerian visa slowly expires...but no, pedals found, trip intact.


Here's Adel: former boxer, husband, father of 2 girls, my cabdriver to the airport to pick up the bike. He charged me half of what I paid yesterday, shared some great political cynicism, gave me his phone number and told me to call. Instead, he's immortalized here.

Here's George Bush. I think he went to the same barber I did. He may be missing some teeth as well...maybe he hasn't been flossing.

Things I wish I'd packed:
1. Dental floss (can't find the damn stuff anywhere!)
2. French dictionary (I keep blubbering in Spanish)
3. Arabic dictionary (just kidding)

Considerations while grocery shopping:
1. What packs more densely: spaghetti or macaroni?
2. What cooks faster and uses less fuel: rice, spaghetti or vermiccelli?
3. What the hell do you add to rice/spaghetti/vermiccelli for flavor?
(answers at the end, and no peeking)

Met two motorcyclists back from the desert. Here's more or less what they were carrying:
(spare parts, gps, satellite phone, clean underwear).
Here's my stuff:
(tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove, gps, satellite phone, laptop, 2 cameras, tripod, solar collector, transformer, 2 spare tires, 2 inner tubes, bike tools, chess set (couldn't resist), maps, more maps, windbreaker, 4 wool hats (don't ask), bike helmet, 3 sets of clothes, long underwear, 2 eyeglasses, prescription goggles, (did I mention long underwear? Who knew it could be freezing in the Sahara? Really: anyone?), 4 tupperware containers, 4 ten liter water bladders, water filtration device, medical kit...I know I'm forgetting something...toothbrush...)


Answers:
1. Space is tight: spaghetti.
2. Higher surface to mass ratio: vermiccelli. Rice is a close second...but still seems to take forever to cook...on the other hand, rice+beans=protein...I gave up and bought all three.
3. Raisins. Who knew?


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 21, 2006 from Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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4mm allen wrench

Bou Jerga, Tunisia


First, I'l admit to a certain level of anxiety as I finally set off on my bike: what am I going to find, and worse, what will I accidently leave behind? The answer to the second is easy: something crucial.

I left Sidi Bou Said at 2 pm, after dealing with the certainty that my maps were inadequate. Actually, I didn't deal with it: I convinced myself I was OK with what I had. I put my feet to the pedals for a stylish takeoff (hotel staff and tourists were watching), and promptly discovered that both trailer tires were flat. No holes, just flat. Filled those up, put my feet to the pedals for that stylish takeoff, got around the corner, and discovered I'd forgotten my helmet (yes, Polly, I'm wearing my helmet). Back to ask the hotel staff what they did with my helmet...and finally back to those feet on the pedals.

The plan for this trip was wind at my back (the Harmattan blows south in these parts). The first 20km was wind in my face across a long causeway to Tunis, which I hit at around rush hour. The beauty of that was I inhaled enough particulates to call it dinner. By nightfall I had barely exited urbanity, and found a campsite next to a highway.

Never camp next to a highway. After snuggling in and then wrestling with the idea of digging into my bags for more clothes and some ear plugs for about two tiresome hours, I finally got up the energy to do it. It didn't work. I didn't sleep. Great start.


JVC plant to the left, shipping container yard, tent and bike and trailer, water retention basin, highway. Big, loud, noisy all night highway.

Toothpicks, by the way: the only alternative to floss that I could find. More than you wanted to know.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 23, 2006 from Bou Jerga, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Rain

La Sebala du Mornag, Tunisia


About that 4mm allen wrench: its crucial, and I left it in Sidi Bou Said. It is sitting on a low wall on the terrace of the hotel where I locked my bike and where noone will see it for the next 2 years. Next time you need one, you know where to look.

John and Larry at Pedal Power: the first time my bike fell, the weight of it caused one of the Profile bottle cages (selected for its flexibility to hold wide Nalgene bottles) to shear right off. The bike world needs a metal version of that design. Of course, to get rid of the shorn remains, I needed a 4mm allen wrench.

I stopped at a motorcycle repair shop in Mornag to ask about a 4mm allen wrench, but could only get the guy to unscrew the broken bottle cage with his wrench. Charge: 50 cents. At the next shop I could get the guy to understand I wanted the wrench and not the screwing, and he handed me his to keep. Charge: Free.

Back to those possibly inadequate maps. I'm relying on Michelin maps at 1:1000000 and printouts from Google Earth with placenames for my route only imported. Unfortunately, the roadsigns and the placenames don't match. I admit to the following idiocy, and don't tell anyone:

Michelin says take a right in the middle of Mornag. I saw the turn and decided it wouldn't get me where I wanted to go. I went straight, saw a left to get to the freeway, and thought that going straight might be what Michelin meant by taking a right. (OK, this explanation gets no easier from here: skip ahead with the knowledge that I'm an idiot if I've lost you already). I kept going straight, saw no recognizable placenames, and decided finally that I was on a different road that was less scenic but would also get me where I wanted to go. Rain began to fall. I thought that the road was awfully narrow to be the road I now thought I was on, but kept going anyway. All day. Buckets of rain. I decided what I really needed was one of those tourist hotels in Hammamet, on the coast. If I was on the road I thought I was on, then I had only 10 km to go. Night fell: I was so completely miserable that those hotels were now irresistable (ever try to set up a tent in the dark in the rain?) and I kept going by sense of smell and weak headlights. I met some police and asked them if the next left would get me to Hammamet. Oui. How far? 30 km. I thought: "They don't know what they're talking about". Off I went in the dark. 10 km. Mountains ahead. Something was wrong. I found a lonely cafe, walked in to see George Clooney selling Nespresso on French TV, and was instantly adopted by the owner. We reviewed the maps: my instincts in Mornag were correct and I had been on the originally intended road all along and Hammamet was another 20 km. away and I had been completely wrong all day. You promised not to tell.

Cafe Ranim

Skipped all that? Pick up the narrative here: The cafe owner bundled me off to the local natural hot spring public bath for 2 hours of soaking and detox with Hammam Salah, the local electrician. Turns out Hamam Salah is his cousin and also sleeps on a mattress on the floor as a kind of night watchman, but mostly because he is not getting along with his wife.

I am put up for the night: on another mattress on the floor right next to Hammam Salah. I admit to some anxiety around the sleeping arrangement, what may have been the difficulty betwen the electrician and his wife, and what he might be expecting of me. Those of you who have heard one of my stories from Morrocco will be following this, and the rest of you will have to use your imagination. All went well, and nothing transpired except that it was very cold, the cafe was unheated, and neither of us slept well at all. Shame on me for thinking anything else.

Talking to the electrician was like being at an American construction site, only in French: cashflow is always an issue and the architect thinks he has all the answers but doesn't.


That's Hammam Salah on the left, one of his card-playing cronies in the middle, and the son of the cafe owner to the right. The little guy got one of those four knit hats I'm carrying (and now you know why I'm carrying them).

Hammam Salah's father fought with everyone, lived apart from his wife, but visited once every 9 months from the time she was 16. The electrician has 14 siblings and his mother is my age.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 23, 2006 from La Sebala du Mornag, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Rain, robbers, bliss

Hammam Jedidi, Tunisia


We woke up at 5am to prerecorded and very loud religious incantations that went on for about 30 minutes. No snooze button.


It's raining. Hard. The road's out up ahead, until around noon 2 cop cars zoom by on the trail of 10 men who robbed a bank in Hammamet, to indicate that the flooding has subsided. I decide to find one of those hotels in Hammamet, get all my wet clothes back on (its worse than it sounds, but fine once you're out in the rain), and head out.



permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 23, 2006 from Hammam Jedidi, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Christmas Eve

Al Hammamat, Tunisia


I'm ensconced now in a Sheraton with wireless internet access, my gloriously overheated room is festooned with drying clothes, I'm about to have a gourmet Christmas dinner, I'm going to sleep for 12 hours, and the hell with camping anyway. Merry Christmas!

Tonight's menu:
1. pate du canard with figs and fruit sauces (very, very nice improvement on plain old pate)
2. consomme de...some seafood...
3. Turkey rolled around some kind of leafy vegetable: indescribable and great
4. creamed potato tower: think whipped cream, only potato...
5. custard with chocolate lines drawn on it, and english pudding
6. cafe au lait

I showed up so late, they gave it to me for 1/3 of the price, which, because I'm stingy as all hell except when I'm not, naturally quadrupled my pleasure.

Bonne nuit Mia.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 24, 2006 from Al Hammamat, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Eat with me! You won't eat with me?

Kairouan, Tunisia



This is Mohamed el Amied Ben Hedili Ben Mohamed Ben Romd’hane, storekeeper, father of 2 children (ages 2 and 3), devout Muslim, and gentleman of real character. I approached him simply to buy a spoon.

"Une cuiller seulement"?
"Oui, une".

He quickly had one of the 2 guys working for him find an old spoon. While they were cleaning it and I was wondering what an old spoon would cost me, he invited me to eat with him. Though I told him I must go, he quickly set up two packing crates inside his store, brought out dates, olives, olive oil, chili paste, milk and water, and told me to have a seat. I did as I was told.

About the milk: apparently fresh from the cow. I admit to some reticence. Lots of solid material that tasted kind of cheesy, with a slightly sour tinge and just a hint of the flavor you expect from the pasteurized, homogenized stuff. I was assured it was vital to keep me strong on my trip, and finally dug in for a couple of cups full.

Center for Disease Control advisory on traveller's health: "Avoid dairy products, unless you know they have been pasteurized".

Mohamed proved to be open-minded, but suggesting strongly that I read the Quran so that I might afterwards allow myself a choice. It definitely made me regret not bringing an English version along on this trip, if only to set the context. As far as Mohamed is concerned, there is no book with as many good answers to life’s important questions. I thought: why not?

Western culture fears Moslem culture, let’s face it. Facing the strange, the unknown, the “Other” requires a certain sense of security and trust, which seems to be diminishing despite everyone’s best efforts. The Netherlands just banned the burkha, for example, a move that frankly reminded me of the old dress code we had in Junior High. No jeans children!!

It wasn’t the jeans but what they represented, and so it is with the burkha. Holland is impoverishing its own culture, and nullifying one of it’s most generous and well-known tenants: tolerance.

Back to Mohamed: we ate and chatted as he and his employees dealt with a jostle of customers, and when it was time for me to go, he handed me 2 plastic bags filled with groceries and took not a single Dinar. I said “Mohamed, il y a une difference entre l'amitie et l’argent. Laisse-moi payer pour ces choses”. He told me “Une autre temps, peut-etre”. I bicycled away and found a scooter at my elbow not 3 kilometers later: it was Mohamed with that spoon I had originally approached him for: no charge.


permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 26, 2006 from Kairouan, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Condensation

Bi'r 'Ali Bin Khalifah, Tunisia


A hotel appears as the sun suggests rest...stay? go? another 25 km and then a muddy Field? Stay!

25 Dinar buys a room without heat in a hotel under renovation, but hot water runs from 8pm to midnight. It's enough, and a hot bath and dinner downstairs of couscous and chicken and bread (baskets of bread!) and pastry and cafe au lait make it perfect.

Here's the view out of my window in the morning. Unheated room = lot's of condensation.



permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 27, 2006 from Bi'r 'Ali Bin Khalifah, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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7 Trips
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Here's a synopsis of my trips to date (click on the trip names to the right to get all the postings in order):

Harmattan: Planned as a bicycle trip through the Sahara Desert, from Tunis, Tunisia to Cotonou, Benin, things didn't work out quite as expected.

Himalayas: No trip at all, just...

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