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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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Regression Therapy

Bi'r 'Ali Bin Khalifah, Tunisia

Here's how to bicycle the last 48 km of the day when your tri-deltoids are killing you, and this little bunch of muscles that you never knew you had right behind your left knee is turning to stone...regression therapy.

48: Africa
47: Car accident...mid-life crisis
46: A million trips to Middlebury, Vermont
45: New job: working with Middlebury College in Vermont
44: No more school construction funding in Massachusetts...job crisis
43: Project manager for Acton schools: Mia's school, the school I went to
42: Starting work on the Acton schools: second most rewarding career experience
41: Trading self-employment for a day job
40: Designing Franklin's Hawaiian pad: still not done
39: Designing Franklin's Hawaiian pad: most rewarding career experience
38: Boston, Massachusetts: a million trips to Washington DC for work
37: Los Angeles, California: bad move professionally. Mia arrives!!!
36: Marriage (I finally say yes).
35: Cambridge, Massachusetts: working with Polly. Designing Franklin's first house.
34: Las Vegas, Nevada: working on Treasure Island Casino. Polly says "yes"!
33: Los Angeles: Architectural degree at last.
32: Ticino, Switzerland and Rotterdam, the Netherlands: thesis.
31: Los Angeles, California: school. Dad dies.
30: Divorce. Only 30 kilometers to go!!
29: Boston, Massachusetts: Condominium renovation horror. Quit school.
28: Night school, day job, condominium renovation: what was I thinking?
27: Somerville, Massachusetts: starting school again
26: Raleigh, North Carolina: designing water filtration plants and branch banks.
25: Marriage. A year in the Amazon basin.
24: Raleigh, North Carolina: my first job.
23: Quiting school to be with Laurie.
22: Cornell Architecture. Working as a cafe manager (much better!)
21: Cornell Architecture. Working as a janitor and then a dishwasher in a restaurant.
20: A year on my bicycle in Europe and Morrocco.
19: Flunking out of Cornell Engineering.
18: Cornell College of Engineering.
17: High School graduation.
16: Driver's licence (fender bender in Registry of Motor Vehicles parking lot: good start)
15: Tennis camp.
14: Being a teenager is miserable!
13: Being a teenager is great!
12: Summer in Austria with Niekje.
11: Junior High misery.
10: Graduating elementary school: a major triumph.
9: Less than 10 kilometers left: I'm going to make it!
8: Forcing everyone to stop calling me "Roll" and start calling me "Rule".
7: The pinnacle of my academic career. Unfortunately, I peaked early.
6: Moving to Acton, Massachusetts. I remember the smell of school paste.
5: Moving to Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Making maps with my gang from the hood.
4. Moving back to Holland. Awe at the maps and globes in the 5th grade classroom.
3. Moving to Wildwood, Illinois.
2. Falling down the stairs. Lighting matches with Niekje...lots of matches.
1. Come on: does anyone remember 1?
0. I've made it. My back is killing me!

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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Pink bathroom

Gabes, Tunisia

I'm staying in another hotel tonight: heat and hot water and a completely pink bathroom and a very large, deep tub to boot.

I pulled in at 6pm, just after dark, my first 100km day. I'm here for 2 nights to give myself time to buy some crucial stuff:
1. a new knife (this trip keeps eating utensils, have you noticed?)
2. some warmer sleeping gear (seduced by the weight of the lightest Marmot sleeping bag-rated to 30F and weighing only 1lb-I supplemented with a Dupont liner-rated an additional 15F-and thought I had the problem elegantly licked. In fact, I didn't factor in just how little heat I'm generating at the end of a long day on the bike: I am FREEZING and have a new appreciation for hypothermia.
3. warm socks

By the way, that spoon I lost...it came back. Now I have two. It was hiding under the fold of one of my outer pockets, and it wasn't until I unpacked absolutely everything last night in trying to find my knife, that I found the spoon. The knife (with attached bike lock key and handy LED light) is definitely history. Two theories: this guy I met two nights ago stole it, or I accidently threw it away with a bag of Orange peels and empty yoghurt containers. Full story:

After leaving Kairouan (and NOT staying in the 5 star hotel that beckoned so...so...seductively), I bicycled another 25km into the middle of farm country. Mud absolutely everywhere. I was about to plant my tent on a concrete cistern to get out of the mud when a 15 year old kid bicycles by and suggests I follow him. I do. For half an hour. It gets dark. Suddenly he says goodbye, and leaves me standing there wondering what that was all about. 20 minutes later I find a house that looks like its under construction, and plant the tent on a concrete pad. Dogs begin to howl, and they don't stop for an hour. Ensconced in the tent, I implant some earplugs and hope for the best. Half hour later, flashlights and muttering outside the tent. I ignore it and they go away. 15 minutes after that, more flashlights and muttering, and this time I'm rousted by the owner of the house and his ne'er-do-well brother. They suggest I make myself at home inside the house where it will be warmer. Up comes the tent and everything in it, to be placed in the house.

I'm left there with the brother: he can't stay in Tunisia, he wants to travel and work abroad but can't get a visa, and can I help him find work in the United States or Europe? He hasn't been to school, he drives a truck occasionally but doesn't have a job, he speaks some rudimentary French, but he has no skills whatsoever. He doesn't want to work on the family farm. He's evasive about his name and address, but gives me his telephone number, and promises to see me in the morning. Next morning he's a no-show. I leave the house, the door locks after me, I realize I don't have my knife. I force the latch on the door (15 minutes with a stiff piece of cardboard: I was desperate), search the house, and don't find a thing.

When you're carrying as little as I am and everything has been considered for weight and size and utility and cost and secondary uses, losing any one item takes on an inordinate importance (I've been planning this for over a year!). I was really, really depressed for kilometers. I started using the back of my spoon as a knife (spoons: they're the new knife!), and got through the day, and finally came back to my senses: I can get another knife. Furthermore, I have a spare light and a spare bike lock key and this isn't the catastrophe it felt like in the heat of the moment. XZ$%&@! happens. C'est la vie.

Dental floss: that problem I thought I solved by buying toothpicks? It wasn't working, I'm having some swelling in the gums, and finally ask an Australian studying Arabic here in Tunisia if she could give me some floss. She hands me a whole roll. Ca, c'est aussi la vie.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 27, 2006 from Gabes, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Gabes, Tunisia

End of a day of shopping:
1. Electrical tape: Larry, the handlebar wrap just isn’t holding up at the bar end.
2. Scrubbie/sponge: Lots more cooking happening soon.
3. Wool socks: At least, the guy said they were wool…
4. Knife: From the cutlery bin at the department store.
5. Corkscrew/can opener/bottle opener/mini knife: Just like I lost….only...different.

I took the Polly Dithmer approach to shopping: see something more or less like what you need, and grab it. No exhaustive survey of the marketplace, no price comparisons, no research regarding alternative models, nothing. I’m a new man.

Tried to find the Quaran in English, but only found Newsweek.

Found a Polartech burnoose (Polartech! Manufactured in Lawrence, United States! The guy told me wool was too heavy and impractical!), perhaps as an alternative to some kind of additional blanket or comforter, but couldn’t convince myself it was quite right.

Here’s the bottom line on traveling alone, at least for me: it’s fine in the morning as long as you have an agenda in place (ride 100km, buy wool socks, whatever), but it is terribly painful in the afternoon as the light dwindles. I miss familiar things and people. I miss my family and friends. I physically ache for connection. By the time it gets completely dark, I feel reduced to a client, a target or an outcast, depending on the situation.

Travel: it's a mental game.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 29, 2006 from Gabes, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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New email address

Gabes, Tunisia

I hope you'll all feel free to continue adding comments to the blog, but I've also set up the following email account for the duration of the trip:


Hope to hear from you.
Cheers, Roel

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 29, 2006 from Gabes, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Medenine, Tunisia

Iraq rings out the old year with a hanging, the Krabbendams are making deep fried Dutch treats, and I’m watching Al Jazeera from a hotel room on the main square of Medenine, Tunisia.

I spent the morning with Google Earth, addressing my concerns about navigating the desert just south of here, and then took off for the 75 kilometer run down to Medenine. Gabes was a ghost town: everything closed down for Eid. I bought a baguette and a big bottle of water from the Oasis hotel before I left (pink bathrooms notwithstanding, a great little hotel: very nice people, heat and hot water on demand, deep bathtubs, pretty good buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, wi-fi in the reception area, and they even gave me the 10% very-tired-Dutch-biker-stumbling-in-after-dark discount).

The roads were empty. No trucks, infrequent cars, and a sunny, clear day as well. Nonetheless, with only 6 hours of daylight left to cover 75 kilometers over hilly terrain, I was moderately concerned about arriving before dark. In Arram, 35 kilometers from Medenine and just beyond a town named Mareth, as I stopped for a drink of water, a man accosted me and would not let me go on. I tried reasoning with him, to no avail. It was have a meal with his family or else! (I know that was cheap, preying on all your fears).

I put away my little plan to get to Medenine (heat, hot water, security…), eased my mind into accepting a night out in the tent, and accepted the invitation. The whole clan was gathered at the ancestral home: the son from up north, the cousin from Paris…all hanging out on mattresses in the shadow of the house in the yard.

Lunch was eaten on the mattresses: grilled mutton, couscous, some kind of mildly spicy red sauce, tea, more tea…the father of the clan had some kind of technical job, the guy that pulled me off the road, Karboub Mohamed, works for the water utility SONEMED in Sfax, and the brother, Karboub Belgacem (always the brother!) had studied at the university, spoke some English, and couldn’t find a job.

The Karboub Clan of Arram, Tunisia

I took pictures of all the men, who were hanging out separately, and when mom demanded to know why I didn’t take a picture of the women, I took pictures of the women. One young girl appeared seriously disturbed, and I was somehow heartened to see her ensconced, protected, embraced in the middle of the female clan.

As I left I got the pitch to find some work abroad for Belgacem. With the sun already setting, I made a try for Medenine and arrived an hour after dark. A young guy on a bicycle challenged me to a race up the last hill (gasp!), and then helped me find a little hotel on the main square where I watched Hussein’s hanging on TV. Al Jazeera left little to the imagination.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 30, 2006 from Medenine, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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New Years Eve

Tataouine, Tunisia

Left waiting in Tataouine for 2 days until government offices reopen to get a special permit to cross a restricted zone to the Algerian border, I heard of a New Year’s celebration up in the hills and caught a ride from the hotel.

It was in a granary (or "Ksar" or "Qasr") built like a fort, all stone and arched openings, a single entry portal, and command of the surrounding countryside. Inside, open fires provided smoke and warmth and light, and we sat under draped tents of wool cloth as food was served in 8 courses and a band played to a crescendo at midnight. Italians, Dutch, Canadian, Tunisian, Portuguese…managing in any number of languages to share this cloudy night.

When we finally stepped outside the sky had cleared and a radiant moon illuminated the countryside around us: stone and dust and here and there a house or tree. Two Italians from Torino gave me a ride back to the hotel, and maybe it was the two bottles of wine we had shared, but the silence on the way back felt good and the music still haunts me.

Happy New Year.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on December 31, 2006 from Tataouine, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Tataouine, Tunisia

When the Arabs swept into northern Africa in the 11th century, they not only destroyed the last vestiges of the great Roman desert farming systems, but they also drove the Berbers into the desert. These Berbers managed to carve and construct entire towns out of rock cliffs, and established “ksars” above to protect their grain and offer refuge. A system of dams across the narrow necks of large rainwater catchment areas created the conditions to support agriculture and feed the town. Douiret is one such town.

Ruins of this extensive development cover the hill to the left, but also follow a seam of softer stone around an entire valley. Houses are partly dug into the softer material, and fronted with masonry construction that supports the opening. I was amazed at the extent of the construction, now completely abandoned.

The architectural highlight of this area is the ksars, one of which hosted the New Year's party I attended. One ksar being renovated into a hotel is Ksar Ouled Debbab:

Notice the fiberglass dinosaurs, a hint that I'm not in Africa at all (haha!), but lounging at the Sony Picture Studios in Burbank, California.

Chenini is the remnants of another town.

As if living off a corpse, the few residents of Chenini still making their home there seem to get by on the tourists that come to see a world-class archeological site. What I found was a decaying pile of rubble festooned with electrical wiring, plastic flotsam, trash and the usual handicraft stands. People do still live there, in what little is habitable, but there are not enough of them to make this a vibrant town and too many to call this a park or monument. I sensed no pride in the vast effort it must have taken to build this place from stone in the 11th century, nor embarrassment that it is so utterly left to both neglect and the ad hoc infrastructures of modern life. Instead, in the aggressive approaches by the guides, and the pleading of the children for a dinar or just a caramelo, I experienced only opportunism and desperation.

I cannot resent their need and desire to make a living, but do wish them the resources to take a decisive step: abandon and preserve, or reoccupy and renovate. Either way would support them better than the unhappy mess that supports them so tenuously today.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on January 1, 2007 from Tataouine, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Tataouine, Tunisia

Meet Luca and Tiziana, two Italians from Torino on vacation in southern Tunisia. I met them New Year's Eve when I was seated at their table, and they were kind enough to let me tag along on their tour of the ksars and villages around Tataouine. Luca is an engineer for Mondo (the company that did the athletic flooring for the Atlanta, and now the Beijing, Olympics)and flies all over the world working on their projects. Tiziana is a graphic artist for the City of Torino and doesn't get to fly anywhere. The drama of these two (She doesn't love me enough!) reminds me of what I like best about Italians, and especially about these two. They made my stay in Tataouine fantastic.

Now, I know everyone is feeling sorry for me out here ("Doesn't this guy have a job"? "All he does is ride around and take pictures"! "Didn't I hear he was actually in Burbank, United States"?), so here is the Hotel Sangho, my retreat in Tataouine, Tunisia. Boo-hoo me.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on January 2, 2007 from Tataouine, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Existential Despair (short-lived)

Tataouine, Tunisia

5pm Permission denied to enter the restricted zone to the south, and forced to head northwest to another crossing into Algeria. I’m angry at the official denial, embarrassed by how much I counted on getting permission, annoyed at the time and money I’ve wasted coming down here only to be denied, reluctant to backtrack, frustrated by my inability to craft a substantial petition in French, concerned about what I’ll run into in northern Algeria, and finally, focused on what is now my only available route to Tamanrasset: the road that caught my attention 28 years ago.

Around me tourists of various nationalities, all here on a comfortable tour bus or in organized expeditions, all here with friends and family, all quite comfortable with what they will see and what they expect and how they will return to their normal life, if they even feel they have left it. The contrast leaves me in utter despair.

Why do I feel I need to do this? Why don’t I just go home? Why am I putting my family through this? What could I possibly get out of this except pain and misery and loneliness? A tan? A workout?

6pm Polly on the phone: her jokes totally ruin my funk. I hate that.

7pm Two American women, mother and daughter, and their Tunisian guide invite me to dinner, and it helps immensely. The Tunisian is a professor of history with a wonderful sense of humor, and the women have traveled widely, so that our discussion goes from Roman agriculture in the Sahara to riding busses in Honduras to coyotes eating the pet dog in Napa Valley where the family grows wine. A Canadian woman stops by to say hello, mentions she is renting a house in Douz, and says yes when I invite myself to lunch in a few days. Something to look forward to.

8pm. Plotting the new route. I'll tack west much further north that I had originally intended, but I have to backtrack 120km. I'll wake up at 5am and try to do that in one day, back to Gabes and the Oasis (pink bathroom) hotel.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on January 3, 2007 from Tataouine, Tunisia
from the travel blog: Harmattan
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Gabes, Tunisia

I was determined to keep my back-tracking to a single day, and set out for the 126 km ride north at 7am from Tataouine. The 53 kilometers back to Medenine were done by 11am, and I took an hour in a cafe to drink water, OJ and coffee. What I didn't notice sitting there was that a ferocious headwind had developed that would punish me for the rest of the day. It stopped me in my tracks more than once, as the hilly terrain, the oncoming traffic and my own increasing exhaustion took an additional toll.
By 130pm I was in Koutine 1, where the guy standing over the yellow crates sold me the cheapest bottle of water I had found to date, but also kicked in a free pack of gum. 330pm and I was in Arram, where I had been treated to lunch by the Karboub clan: 35 km to go. It starts to rain. All day I've been staring at this band of clouds, and now I'm in them. By 5pm I was in Kettana, and couldn't move anymore. I had a half hour of daylight left and 20 km to go, but I stopped at a stand selling pomegranates and met Selmi Lamine.
Selmi Lamine sold me a pomegranate for (I suspect) the tourist price of .6 Dinar, but he then showed me how to eat the darned thing and then treated me to a coffee as well. As we sat in the cafe, he told me about going back to school to study tourism, that he had almost finished the 2 1/2 year curriculum, and that he would soon start his 2 month internship at a hotel on the island of Jerba. He speaks English and French and is studying German (very hard, those long German words!), but his job prospects are dismal. Tunisia won't let him travel unless he can find a job contract in another country or unless he marries a foreigner. A story I have heard too often now, and one that makes me fear for this wonderful country. Isn't this the fuel feeding fundamentalism? How long before this generation of underemployed students begins to express their dissatisfaction, turning to extremism or violence or hopelessness and self-loathing? I fear for them.

6pm I turn on my lights and head out into the dark. The wind sucks the breathe out of me, but I'm determined to make it to Gabes. Every time I see on-coming traffic I scoot off the road, but I feel secure that with my blinking lights that I am very visible. It takes me 2 more hours to get to Gabes.

8pm When I arrive at the hotel I am unable to write my name on the register, and the manager immediately calls for some Orange juice. I am in incredible pain, my neck and back having seized up completely some hours earlier. I get into my room, fill the tub with scalding water, fumble out of my clothes, and here, parents, you may want your kids to skip a paragraph:

Many of you may know that the male privates diminish and contract considerably when the organism experiences stress. What I had never seen before however, was their complete and utter disappearance. I looked down as I was about to slide into that achingly hot bath and found...nothing. Nothing! I paw around, and it is all unfamiliar terrain! I admit to a moment of concern. I get into the tub, however,and that's all it takes. The little fellow takes a peek, gets a little tangled in the hair down there, and then pops out as if there was never cause for concern.

OK children, pick it up here: I lie there for an hour, can't lift myself out of the tub, and lie there for another half. When I finally stumble off to the restaurant, dinner is over. The food manager fixes me grilled Turkey and potatoes anyway, with dates and Oranges for dessert.

10pm Done. I sleep for 12 hours. Good pills.

permalink written by  roel krabbendam on January 4, 2007 from Gabes, 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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