('On-line' text of)

'VIA RISHIKESH - A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason

© Paul Mason 2006

Chapter 8

GETTING TO KNOW THE CUSTOMS

The worst symptoms of my cold pass, though the headache persists, as does the extreme congestion. We take to the road though a handkerchief is never far from my face and over the next two days, we move gradually across Algeria. People here are friendly enough, giving lifts, sharing their food and sometimes showing us what lies off the beaten track. We accept a lift from someone driving a Morris Minor in a poor state of repair with door handles so broken that the driver is forced to tie the doors closed after we are inside. As we bounce our way up a rock-strewn incline I witness the sort of abuse this old machine gets subjected to.

Generous and hospitable; an Algerian couple invite us to sleep in their home. They are very sweet to us, constantly watching our every move and reaction (especially whilst they are showing us their photograph albums). When the time comes to sleep they give us a double bed made up with crisp fresh white sheets.

When morning comes we decide to make an early start and strike out for the main road by foot. The walls of the buildings here appear to be made with mud, but all look relatively comfortable, even luxurious. As we pass through their village, small children peep out from darkened windows or doorways, curiosity painted over their intense little faces.

On the sides of the roads grow cactus bushes covered. Yolanda shows great interest in these odd specimens bristling with lethal looking spikes. A local demonstrates the art of picking and skinning these fruits known as figs d'Indes (figs of India). But I keep my distance reckoning that one false move and I would be a hospital case. Give me apples or bananas anytime!

Virtually everywhere we have travelled so far, the people seem to have black hair but here in Algeria I encounter the 'Ginger Heads'. It is a matter of stark surprise to see the bright orange frizzy hair of some of the native folk. It certainly has me puzzled.

On the outskirts of a major town we witness teams of tall muscular young chaps fearlessly kicking a football about in their bare feet. Football seems to be the favoured sport of the youth of Algeria; the game seems to be played everywhere.

Though rural shops do not usually have any printed or painted signs identification of butcher’s shops is simplicity itself. The owners hoist the head of a bull or cow and affix it over their shop. Macabre and gruesome the sight saddens and nauseates us. It's only defense being it's brutal honesty. The pieces of meat hanging outside attract vast swarms of flies and according to our driver some of this is horsemeat, a normal component of their diet. For the remainder of our stay in Algeria we decide to avoid all meat.

It must be admitted that on the whole we haven't formed a very favourable impression of Algeria and we yearn to move on. Eventually, we reach the very last town before the border with Tunisia and there we spend the last of our local currency on some oranges and cigarettes before walking quite a distance to the border control post.

 

Once formalities on the Algerian side are finished with, we have to cross a seemingly endless tract of uninhabited scrubland, which leaves us thoroughly exhausted. The walk itself is more than enough to put a dent in our humour but the sores inflicted by the continued chaffing of the straps of our luggage causes even further misery. Our spirits are raised greatly improved as we sight the customs house.

Dumping our bags on the floor, we settle down to the laborious chore of filling out the required forms. Gradually though, I am beginning to memorise all the require information which makes the paperwork that much easier to deal with.

'How are you travelling?' the official asks.

'Autostop! We are hitchhiking.'

'So. How did you get here?' he continues.

'We walked from the last town. It's a long way.'

'Yes it is, and it's also a long way to the next,' he informs us.

In truth, the idea of wandering off into the wilderness has no appeal at all, so after discussion, we decide to wait for a lift before attempting to go any further. We ready ourselves for a long wait. The official has two companions staying here; the young men offer us to share an evening meal with them and are really very hospitable to us. They even offer us some wine, which we politely refuse. This friendliness is a welcome change from the heaviness we have encountered on some borders.

As darkness sets in the lights attract the insects of the night. It is time for preparations to be made for sleeping. As we unroll our sleeping bags the official appears and offers Yolanda to sleep on a camp bed inside the office. As it turns out, only the one bed is available so I willingly give over to Yolanda and settle down to getting comfortable on the floor.

I lie there thinking for quite a time, unable to sleep and I become aware of the shapes of several people slinking into the room. Silently they pad there way about, there way lit by a torch beam subdued within a wrap of cloth. For all they know I am fast asleep. They appear pretty shaken when I sit up and demand an explanation for their intrusion.

Startled at first they give no reply and then in a nervous voice one of them mumbles something unintelligible and then they all leave.

Yolanda is now awake and takes news of the intrusion uneasily.

'It's okay,' I say, 'You sleep here, I will close the door and sleep across it.'

When this is accomplished I gently drift asleep comforted by the thought that any attempt to enter the room will automatically rouse my attention.

'Why are you here?' a voice storms.

It is now well into the night and the border guard stands menacingly, staring down at me with a dark scowl spread across his dark features.

Since the reason was self-evident, I don't trouble myself to answer; instead I ask him what he wants.

'Get out of the doorway,' he orders.

'No,' I reply firmly.

Three more times that night am I am awoken by the footsteps of one or the other of the young men here and by the time dawn breaks I have clocked up precious little sleep.

Again the official appears and this time I knock on the double doors and call to my girlfriend telling that someone wants to come into the room. A frosty sort of politeness between the border guard and us becomes the order of the day.

We used the time spent waiting on the border, as constructively as possible. Locating a nearby stream we settle down to washing our hair and a few of our clothes that we then leave out to dry in the sun. Hours drift by and with no sign of a lift, we become increasingly apprehensive, uncomfortable at the prospect of another night on the border. In back it is already dark before the sounds of an approaching vehicle brings everyone to their feet. All at once I can see it is a family car, jam packed full, even the roof is laden with the weight of suitcases and bundles.

We have changed, we are no longer so casual and carefree, and right now we are utterly desperate to get away from this place. However, I reckon that even if these people wanted to give us a lift they would be unable to find room for us. But fate is on our side, in the unlikely form of the pushy customs official who proceeds to try and persuade them to take us on to the next town. Perhaps they are intimidated by the official or maybe they are just naturally friendly (I prefer to think it is the latter) but whatever the reason is the driver gives his approval.

Though the driver appears amiable enough he is a touch too polite. I sense that he is a little wary of us, maybe even frightened perhaps? The trip away from the border post becomes unexpectedly jolly as sweets and snacks are passed around. We hold on to our seats to stop being thrown about as we bounce about thrown by the rough uneven road.

By the time we are quite clear of the border zone and into Tunisia, the sky is starting to get light. I call out to the driver.

'This will do. Thanks, merci!'

We have a long wait here, but we console ourselves that at least we have gotten away from the stress of being on the border. And eventually we are repaid for all the hanging about as our next lift offers us an express trip to Tunis in a gleaming Lamborghini! I notice Yolanda seemed particularly at ease on this journey.

It seems the driver has recently returned from a visit to Italy, Yolanda's home country. He had gone there to arrange the car's routine maintenance. Clearly, we are now hob-nobbing with the jet set and I lean back comfortably, thoroughly determined to enjoy it.

On hearing of our plans to continue across North Africa, our driver offers us some advice. He tells us that when we get to Tunis we should go to the Libyan embassy, for he is sure we will need visas. He warns us the visas might be costly.

All good lifts have to end sometime and after we part company with our driver I notice a far away look in my girlfriend's eyes.

'He's your sort of guy isn't he?' I ask gently. Yolanda face now flushes - she focuses her eyes on me and answers angrily.

'What do you mean? What a lot of rubbish, I'm not impressed by wealth!'

I don't believe a word she says, but I keep silent.

We have no reason to delay, so we trek off to the Libyan embassy only to discover that he correct about us needing visas, and about them being expensive, mine alone will cost over two pounds. Relative to the amount of funds we have this is a very large sum and this really worries me. And we have to wait a couple of days whilst our visas are processed so we have time to get to know Tunis. Finding ourselves in the main street, the Avenue de France, we quickly realise how expensive the restaurants are here and we set our minds to fretting over our financial situation.

'We could always take to begging,' I suggest in all seriousness. 'There seems a lot of very wealthy people in this part of town.'

Sitting ourselves down in a doorway we throw ourselves into the part, after all a job worth doing is worth doing well. It seems necessary for us to stop looking happy and we should also appear uncomfortably hungry. Yolanda's sombrero is soon tinkling to the sound large and small coins being thrown into it. I figure this is conscience money, that these people are loaded and are only ridding themselves of loose change. As such I feel no real gratitude towards our benefactors. Mind you, this does take away any of the guilt and embarrassment. Twenty minutes of begging and we are done with it!

'Never again. I pity those who don't have a choice,' said my accomplice.

We begin exploring the alleyways of the city and come across a stall selling freshly squeezed fruit juice. I watch as the vendor crushes the lemons to extract the juice, then adds sugar and ice before setting them whirling in a blender. The resultant frothy liquid is deliciously cool, and 'moreish'. We must have another juice; we try orange this time. As I sip my drink I convince myself it tastes all the better for being paid for by our begging exercise. We are now in search of food and to this end we wander into the Arab Quarter. There is not a white face to be seen and here everyone seems to wear long gowns and sport funny little hats. But the atmosphere feels tense; I sense that we are looked upon as intruders, so we should be careful. Down the narrow rambling lanes we wander until that sign of signs grabs my attention, the red and white one advertising a popular drink that 'things go better with'.

The dark eyes of the owner look at me, challenging and fierce. 'What shall we have?' I ask Yolanda, but she just looks vacant.

'Egg chips and two Cokes,' I order, embarrassed that I know nothing of the local dishes. The waiter looks at me confused, so I repeat myself loudly and slowly.

'Eggs, potatoes in oil,' I explain.

The waiter disappears, returning briefly with our drinks.

'Do you think he understands?' Yolanda says uncertainly.

'We'll probably get a plate of sheep's eyes or roasted horse.' I retort.

 

Actually, when I see the result of my rather foolish request I can't help being slightly amused. Two frying pans are placed on our table, each containing one raw egg and some slices of partly cooked potato swimming in warm oil. Beside the pans is placed some sliced French bread spread with chilli paste.

What can I do?

I resort to my indignant English gentleman routine; the staff gaze at me uncomprehending as I rant and rave. Although we have consumed no more than a few gulps of Coca-Cola and a bite of bread, I still felt acutely embarrassed as we get up and leave without paying. Luck, fate, or whatever, seems today to be running in our favour - no threats are made, no knife is produced. We scurry back as fast as our legs will carry us to the relative safety of the westernised part of town where we find something to eat.

The problem of accommodation is a daily dose of worry and today this is sorted out in a most unusual way. Having explained our circumstance to a stranger who stopped to talk with us, he kindly offers us to camp in his van that is parked nearby. So, tonight we lay ourselves down in the back on the rusty slatted floor, but the light of the streetlamps long delay us from sleeping.

* * *

We have to stay in Tunis until our visas have been processed. So we try to make the most of our stay which is not that difficult, since the city is very geared to tourism. Young people are forever coming up to us and chatting. Even at a distance, from across the street or from a motor car comes the familiar cry of 'Ça va?’

'Friendly lot,' I comment.

'I suppose so,' replies Yolanda sniffily.

Above us is what appears to be an overhead railway. But appears very ancient.

'Far out,' I blurt, 'That's an aqueduct.'

Yolanda agrees; she appears impressed too.

'They must be almost two thousand years old maybe. Imagine that,' I add enthusiastically.

I suppose some people would buy a guidebook and explore the sights properly, however, we spend our time just wandering around and occasionally refreshing ourselves at yet another fresh fruit juice stall. In the evening some 'Frenchy' type Tunisians invite us to go to their flat for a party.

Two teetotalers watching two dozen students get pissed is an experience I might have cheerfully missed. By the early hours when we settle down to sleep, I really get the message loud and clear. These students are pests! I find myself having to spend the entire night hunched in the corner and fighting off sleep in order to keep a watchful eye over my sleeping girlfriend. A voice in my head tells me these students could not be trusted. Carrying bottles of wine clutched tight in their hands they keep coming back into the room to check whether I am asleep yet.

'Ça va?' they ask.

'Ça va pas,' I retort disdainfully.

With the new light of day we decamp; it is strangely comforting to be back on the streets again. We traipse around, as ever we carry with us our luggage. The new day brings with it a variety of opportunities to meet people. A Tunisian lad took us home for a meal, to the third floor, of a ramshackle terraced house where he lives with his folks. When lunch is served, frying pans are placed on the table! From the pans are served eggs, tomatoes and undercooked vegetables. It all goes down well and does a great job in satisfying our hunger. More food is brought to us, the salad stuffs are very welcome but I give the dark meat the go by, not daring to ask which animal has provided it.

Later in the day, an English lad befriends us and proposes that we should spend this our last night in Tunis where he is staying.

'Cheap. Only five dinars,' he declares proudly.

I recall from my coin collecting days that the Roman for penny is dinarius. The French having so recently governed Tunisia and also having been a part of the Roman Empire, maybe that is why there is so little evidence here of Arab culture here

The five dinar accommodation is safe, nothing more. All of us 'guests' sleep in the yard in front of someone's house. The yard is also the home to some chickens and a beautifully coloured cockerel. Immediately overhead is another portion of the aqueduct we have already noticed. Our English friend spends much of his time explaining to us the ancient history of the area, of Carthage and other places. Soon, Yolanda and I find it preferable to keep our distance from this well-informed person for the truth is, that we just aren't that interested in so much history.

***

'As the rooster calls at the break of dawn, look out your window and I'll be gone. You're the reason I'm travelling on...Don't think twice it's alright' Bob Dylan sung that.

'We're off... So long,' I said that!

We really want to get going again and catch a bus to a suitable hitching point, although it is midday before we actually obtain a lift, a long modern truck of the articulated kind.

It's great to be on the move again, racing through the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Suddenly my eyes light on a rare sight only a short distance from the road, it appears to be completely intact Roman coliseum, no less. Yolanda and I stare in wonder as we flash by it, but the others in our vehicle give it no attention at all.

The towns dotted along the coastline remind me of those in Spain; these have great names like Sousse and Sfax, on the beach at Sfax are mile upon mile of sun drenched tourists. When they are all back in their hotels rooms, we have the beach to ourselves for the night.

* * *

Shaking the sand out of our shoes we take a leisurely walk along the front, we are in search of a little breakfast. Ahead of us walks a young man holding a curiously shaped stringed instrument.

'Can I have a go?' I ask boldly.

It resembles a mandolin with an extended fretboard and is strung with thick metal strings. The soundbox is a smooth hemisphere of polished wood, making the instrument a little difficult to position comfortably, but as I strum the strings lightly I hear a wonderful rich full sound. I play a lead run and the peel of the notes fill me with intense delight. This is the finest blues playing I have ever achieved; colourful harmonics flutter from every fret, I am enraptured.

'Thank you, merci beaucoup!'

I hand the magical instrument back to him; my eyes are quite moist.

On to the task of hitching a ride and by afternoon we are another hundred kilometers further on, in a town called Gabes. We find a shaded spot to rest, out of the glare of the sun. A young man stops by and engages Yolanda in conversation. They chat away in French for several minutes before she calls over to me and tells me he is inviting her to go to an oasis. I do not respond.

All smiles, she then asks me to mind the baggage while she goes off. Gritting my teeth I ask her not to be long. After half an hour I am beginning to lose my cool, such as it is. But by the time she reappears I am seething with anger. She is waving a newly acquired wickerwork fan across her face and chatting nonchalantly to her escort. I stare morosely at the pair of them.

When Yolanda and I are alone together again she acts as though she has been gone but a few minutes, and refuses to acknowledge that I have been hard done by in any way.

'How the hell did I know you were all right? You've been gone for ages. I didn't know what was going on,' I rage.

'I really enjoyed myself. You're spoiling it for me.'

I have never been angrier in my life. For me the sunshine spells out gloom and I crave respite from the light. Closing my eyes helps little.

We shuffle slowly away from that place and I have my work cut out just to move along without falling over. My nervous system has become strained by the angry exchange. I reckon our journey has been a huge mistake. How could Yolanda upset me so and be so unfeeling?

We walk on in silence, I look out for a suitable spot to settle down for the night. Seeing a building site I pin my hopes on being able to gain access to a partially built flat here. When nobody is watching we sneak in behind the netted wire fence and into the building under construction. Here we are reasonably safe, but shit… it is depressing!

* * *

Sleep is a good healer and by the morrow we are in better shape, if not exactly flowing with love towards one another. Certainly we could do without another of the oasis scenes.

We turn our attention to finding another lift, and meet with success and are soon speeding ever closer to our new destination, Libya. The driver of the long articulated truck has business in town and thoughtfully drops us off at the local washhouse first. It is fair to say that we take to the place like those proverbial ducks, soaping ourselves thoroughly and taking turns to wash each other's backs. Amidst the bubbles we even have a bit of a cuddle and a kiss.

As we slowly dress and dry each other's hair the outside door of the washhouse flies open. There stands our driver; he is breathless and clearly anxious about something. He makes it clear that he wants us to hurry up and leave so we grab our luggage and follow him outside. The driver hurriedly climbs into the cabin and starts the truck moving. I look about and see hordes of people lining the street, from their manner they seem to think we have done something pretty terrible inside the washhouse. Dashing across the cobbled street we swing our belongings through the open door of the cab before heaving ourselves in.

The driver puts his foot on the accelerator and pulls away leaving the crowd of irate locals well behind. The driver gabbles away excitedly in French. Yolanda starts to explain what he is saying, but I interrupt her.

'Yes I heard him! We're idiots, but why does he say that?' I ask.

'He doesn't say.'

With the lynch mob well behind us now, the lorry slows to a less manic pace, we are outside the city limits and are now surrounded on all sides by sand.

'Is this the Sahara?' I ask.

'Yes I think so,' Yolanda confirms.

To all sides lie unending vast sand dunes dotted only with the occasional clump of hardy vegetation. I reckon this to be a bad place for a breakdown and that's for sure. Although the road is spread with drifting sands, the wheels of the truck seem to have no trouble in gripping the hot tarmac, so we are able to maintain a decent pace. Although this is a lonely place it is not without charm; there is even the occasional bird which flies across our path and the presence of fresh tracks made by small animals bear witness to the presence of water in the area.

At few times on our journey so far have I felt so dependent on our driver and his vehicle. I let out such a sigh of relief when again I see signs of human life again. It is a customs post so we climb down and walk over to meet the uniformed border guard who to my surprise indicates that he wants to go through our bags. Slipping his arm to the bottom of the rucksack he rummages about for a few moments satisfying himself that all is in order.

'What are you looking for,' I ask, genuinely curious.

Bending his fingers and cocking his thumb the guard makes the shape of a handgun and whilst squeezing an invisible trigger he mimics the sounds of gunshots

'Oh no. Definitely not,' I exclaim.

After he stamps our passports I have a quick look at the Arabic script there, which is all indecipherable to me, double-Dutch.

When we come to a town the driver parks up the lorry and makes his way to a café where he slumps down at the nearest table. A group of locals dressed in traditional Arabian gear (robes and turbans) walk towards us leading their camels with them. With so much emphasis on things Arab I am surprised to see the green tinted bottles of Coca-Cola on sale. We tuck into a chunk of French bread and pickled vegetables watched by the locals, hardy people, their eyes and their mannerisms signal their self-respect, their pride.

'Oh God. What's in this roll Yolanda?' I cry out, peeling open the bread.

'I think its chilli sauce,' she says.

'Shit, it's burning me up,' I gasp.

I scrape off as much of the offending red paste as I can, whilst the remainder of the snack I offer to my puzzled stomach, but I sense that on this occasion I will not get away with it.

Our driver takes us into the city of Tripoli and down a succession of broad avenues before dropping us off. And only moments later I clutch my stomach and shriek out in pain. And the pain increases and the associated symptoms of digestive disorders visit me mightily. I am violently sick as a dog and repeatedly feel the need to empty my bowels. My plight does not go unnoticed and a stranger speaking Italian offers his assistance. He goes and buys a tub of capsules; medicine, which he assures us, will solve my problems. Though I remain uncomfortable the worst of the illness soon passes.

'Magic, that's what these capsules are,' I marvel.

It is time we changed some money; it is just a matter of time before we will need to buy something here. There is a bank closeby and, since I have run out of five-pound notes, we go to change a precious 'tenner'. To my surprise I find that Libya also use pounds and I am really shocked to find that British (sterling) pounds are worth less than Libyan pounds, that is a turn up for the book. I had always believed that British currency was the largest monetary unit in the world. So I get only nine pounds and some loose change, the coins are decimal counted in milliemes.

We are far too tired to look about for a cheap hotel for the night, so instead we make our way to the beach. Yolanda has bought some cans of Libby's orange juice (only the best). Since there is no one about we feel free to spread out our bedrolls and lie down on the sand. As the light of the sun fades almost entirely, the light of a full moon shines out more clearly as we settle down for some well-deserved shuteye.

I wonder how come Yolanda did not go down with a stomach upset, after all she had the same food? So, maybe she has a cast iron constitution. My grandfather had one of those, allegedly he favoured alcohol over water, so as not to rust!

 

To 'Via Rishikesh' Chapter 9

 

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