topics: agriculture, olives, culture, daily life, access for the disabled; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: October 31–November 1, 1997

Breakfast: The hotel in El Jem offered breakfast with the price of the room. It was great to sit in the bright morning sun and munch bread with jam and butter, while sipping hot coffee and discussing the day ahead. It sure beats plain bread and water while pedaling on your bike!

Lunch: We haven't just yet gotten the hang of the lunch-as-primary-meal rule of thumb here in the Maghreb, so instead we had apples, pomegranates, pears, and some fresh bread, plus soft drinks and water, as usual. Yogurt has also become a mainstay in our lunchtime meals.

Dinner: When we go to restaurants, the menu is often in Arabic, so we have to ask what's available. (Even if some items are listed in French, restaurants run out of some foods by dinnertime, so we have to find out what's left.) Usually we are told about the same old items. However, sometimes, we can see people eating dishes that are not mentioned to us. Probably the restaurant owners only tell us what they think we non-Tunisians will eat. This happened Saturday night in Sfax, so we just started pointing at other people's tables and plates to find out what was omitted from the limited options we were given. See the Food of the Day for what we discovered!

Food of the Day: Roulet avec petits pois

Everyone else in the restaurant seemed to be eating deep platefuls of what looked like thick spaghetti sauce. We had seen it being eaten before, but, mysteriously, no waiter had ever mentioned it to us as an available menu item. When we asked what it was, we were told it was stew with peas: roulet avec petits pois. This pea stew turned out to be a wonderful, thoroughly vegetarian, thick and spicy tomato soup filled with onions and fresh peas. Unfortunately we couldn't get anyone to give us the Arabic name of this delicacy. We just call it Tunisian Pea Soup and hope that we can find it again tomorrow night.

Words of the Day: La bess — "fine" or "it's alright"; monj — "OK" or "cool"

Just as English is a language if many possible verbal responses to any situation — many of which sometimes mean the same thing — so does Tunisian have its synonymous expressions. For example, you have two choices when affirming your satisfaction, such as with a good purchase, or an adequate hotel room. The word la bess means "fine" or "it's alright," and monj means "OK" or "cool."

People of the Day: Porter Gale and Donna Murphy

From April 1996 to August 1996, Porter Gale and Donna Murphy, founders of "Two Chicks, Two Bikes, Once Cause" cycled cross-country in the US to promote breast cancer awareness and to circulate information about breast health. The trek began in Seattle, Washington, and ended in New York City. In between, the riders biked through 17 states, covering 4,400 miles.

One secret to breast health is sound physical health, another reason why these cyclists are so inspirational. What a great way to get the message to a wide audience! However, their team effort was not limited to these two chicks. They used to have a Web site at

Place of the Day: Olive country

The first several kilometers rolling out of El Jem, over our shoulders we could still see the high walls of the Roman Amphitheater looming behind us. Leaving the city of the ancient temple of violent entertainment was a relief to some of us, and we were quickly soothed by the vast and serene landscape of 60-odd km (37+ mi) of literally thousands of olive groves.

The paradox of a beautiful journey through placid groves of olive trees that in ancient times were often used as tools and weapons in the sometimes horrible spectacles put on in the amphitheater did not escape us. Corinne and andrEa stopped for a minute to watch the hues of green change as the millions of lush olive branches swayed in the breeze and sunlight. The ladies even took a stroll among the big protective trees, discussing all kinds of persecution and all kinds of peace — a conversation prompted by their having visited two such contrasting locations in as many days.

Group Dispatch, October 31–November 1

picture of Corinne

Departure from El Jem on Friday was leisurely . . . for once. Since the ride to Sfax click to view a map wasn't that long and was completely flat, we had no cause for hurry. The whole team enjoyed breakfast, packed, and discussed the rest of our stay in Tunisia before heading out of town. This short day of pedaling also gave Corinne an opportunity to try pulling a B.O.B. trailer for the first time (it takes a little getting used to).

The ride, just as peaceful as the symbol of the olive branch itself, spun the team through the lilting expanse of olive groves (see the Place of the Day) between El Jem and Sfax, and, with a brisk, cool, and comforting breeze, steadily moved everyone back eastward toward the Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, the arrival in Sfax, Tunisia's second largest city, was a quick reminder of the chaos and congestion offered by urban life.

Sfax: "Just the Sfax, ma'am."

Sfax has a long history of industry and is famous for the export of — you guessed it — olives! Originally named Tamparura by the Romans around 81 AD, Sfax has always been at the center of the olive trade. For instance, the commercial (or commerce-oriented) port of Sfax has been used for olives and olive oil transport since the beginning, although it now serves the same purpose for many different kinds of goods, including oil, sea sponges, and dates. Lots and lots of dates.

After a restful sleep in Sfax's Maison des Jeunes, part of Saturday was devoted to exploring the city. Its main attraction is its medina. This medina is contained within high and strong sandstone walls that served as protection for the old city when it was built. And, as in all the old cities visited thus far (like those in Tunis, Sousse, and Kairouan), Sfax's medina is a winding maze of souks (shops) and specialized markets, combining modern life and traditional culture. Sfax continues this tradition of mixing the old with the new. So often here in the cities of the Maghreb, we see older folks in traditional dress, and chic young people in snug blue jeans and designer tops. We also see modern women riding donkey-driven carts, and old men in sandals on mopeds!

Urban culture definitely has its own flare in most towns in the world, and Tunisia is no exception. But what makes Sfax truly distinct is its diversity. In all of Tunisia's larger cities, a great variety of ethnicities — especially people from different parts of Africa — have been represented. Combining this fact with what felt like a greater concentration of people resulted in there being more shapes and sizes to look at. Discovering such diversity is one of the best parts of city life.

Another observation: In most of the cities along the BikeAbout itinerary, we have seen quite a few hand-cranked bicycle-wheelchairs. People with a variety of physical challenges use these vehicles to increase their mobility and to maintain the very public life enjoyed by all Tunisians (as other people do in other countries). Unfortunately, though, very few cities seem to have any concept of access for the disabled. For example, the absence of ramps or elevators indicates that the laws here are not as strict concerning handicapped accessibility. Nor are there the kinds of motorized wheelchairs that we're used to seeing at home. However, the number of disabled people roaming around the streets, squares, and boulevards in these bicycle/wheelchairs demonstrates that members of the Tunisian community take matters of mobility into their own hands!

But back to BikeAbout in the city. While the countryside is definitely beautiful and serene, cities are sometimes just more interesting! The BikeAbout team is lucky since it gets a pretty good balance of both. However, as was the case in Tunisia (but not the case in Morocco), a greater emphasis is sometimes placed on urban areas. This naturally influences what gets learned and how. In Tunisia, the team has also been spending more time at youth centers and hostels. Many of these hostels ingeniously combine local youth activities with visits by foreigners. This has facilitated BikeAbout's exposure to Tunisian kids (and vice versa) and provided a logical forum for the sharing of information about the Internet. That's what exchange is all about!

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