Arafat Ben Marzou, Tunisian solo-cyclist

Cycling Knights. Lords of the Road.  My nomination for honours here in Tunisia: Arafat Ben Marzou, a 30 year old who cycled solo from Turkey to China last year. turkey china ride You just don’t often meet solo Arab travellers, cyclists, trekkers, back packers. Well at least not off the beaten path. So it was worth a trek of my own  to Tunis on the TGM to visit to hear him speak. !00 + signed up on Facebook… and inevitably there were only about 15 people in the room at 5pm Centre d’Etudes de Carthage.  When  the introduction began: ‘Est-ce qu’il y a des francophones dans la salle?’ … I proudly raised my hand… and everyone looked pityingly at me… Then I realized she meant: ‘Does anyone here not understand Tunisian Arabic?’ … because this talk would be local dialect. But then I thought, hell, this young guy managed 10 months across to China, where presumably he didn’t speak the local languages. So ‘meo wunti’  I stayed.

Voyages-340x170 Which was a good decision. First of all, he was engaging: a natural story teller, with a tale to tell. Put simply: graduate in engineering, good job (teaching at university if I understood right) but seeking more in life… Resigns job, sells everything …. sets off on a backpacking sub-Saharan adventure Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Burkino Fasso and Senegal.. hitching lifts, local transport, traveller stuff. He gets the travel bug. And the idea of Turkey to China … by bike. laden bikeClearly this is not a guy who plans, makes lists, organizes, ticks off the items on the checklist. Which is probably why he arrives in Turkey to find his first section of ride is through snow several metres deep. For which he is totally unprepared physically, psychologically and sartorially. But he cycles onwards. And 25 photos and about 45 minutes talk later he is in China (by which time the audience has also grown to about 45). Hurrah.  OK, what was funny was that I really have no clue what he said.. but then that made it all the engaging. Along the line, prompted by one of his friends, he told a good story (which I have retrieved from his facebook page). He’s in Afghanistan with these dudes:

guysThey offer him some local speciality.  Initially he refuses (rule #1 keep a cool head) but then he accepts (Rule # 2: surrender) and drifts off into delightful dope-driven dreamy haze. Wakes up to ‘scary moment’ as they insist on him opening his metal safe box, where he keeps  important stuff (passport, visas, camera…oops money…). Nervously, he opens the box …

“…  and suddenly silence reigned ……… for me this was one of the strongest moments of the trip, to see the magical effect of the Koran on these people, and to see the incredible change in their behaviour. It was strong and it lasted several minutes, enough time for each person to take Koran  in his hands, open the book and kiss it.”

I put myself in his place and wonder…  apart from the kindle… what would be my book in the box? Of course, if it was the bible, the story might have a totally different outcome. As in The End. Because if there is ANYTHING that would piss off the locals it’s an English-speaking bible-bashing biker, laden with kit, brandishing a GPS and assorted maps, claiming to be on a journey of self-discovery. So, I’ve already discounted Turkey-Iran-Afghanistan from the mental map.  Nicely told though. A real audience pleaser.

After his talk, the questions (mostly from females) tended to focus on: ‘Why? What made you? What you escaping from?’ Like all good questions, they reveal more about the askers than the repliers. A better question might be: Why don’t we do it? What are all the reasons we give ourselves for not seeking adventure? The obstacles we create were all there: How much did it cost? Where did you stay? Did you miss your friends / parents / loved ones?  His answers: not a lot, wherever was cheap, no…. Someone asked: All that intense experience, who did you share it with? His response a whispered, loving: ‘ma bicyclette’ …

stripped down His FB page has the above image of his love, stripped down a bit: and inscribed in Arabic which Google translated nicely as: Delirious Bisklat Chrat equitable Bay … Paved Asia from Istanbul to Beijing … And Taadat on Tehran and Kabul!!  Hi Tu returned to Tunisia!  I always used to think of mine as: mon velo. From now on, it’s  Delirious Bisklat.  

Looking back on the evening, and trying to put together this piece, I am struck by the lack of ‘guy’ stuff that usually pepper these presentations. Facts, figures, distances, times, numbers, the absence of the usual organiser’s checklists. I got the impression he was wonderfully unprepared. That’s an adventure. He looked like a nice guy you could hang out with on a bike. His facebook page is called Tabba3ni / (follow me !!) .. so I was inspired to do just that… and celebrate the new year with a quick exploration north and west from Salambo. Okay, it’s not a major ten-month trek from Tunis to Timbuktoo … but it’s a start. The new year started well: January 1st. 7 am sunrise over Salambo beach…

sunrise jan 1By 7.15  Cap Bon visible over the bay.

sunrise jan 1.2 Time to get out.. Next posting…. Cycle ride to Gammarth and beyond.  Preferably eyes open.