They say it’s the ghibli, the southern wind from the Sahara, that brings the dust down to the populated areas of Libya. Wherever it comes from, it’s everywhere here – ramula. Sand, stretching as far as I can see, on either side of the lonely strip of road, with dry grey bushes and maybe a bit of the sea to be glimpsed at times to the left. It’s encroaching on all the towns and villages; between, behind, and all around every sun-baked, run-down building, and covering what used to be gravel streets. Trucks are equipped with extra-rugged tires, just so they can pull off the road or stop for gas. And this wind brings the fine dusty sand straight in my face as I painstakingly pedal across the country. I learned early on to keep my mouth shut out there on the road, to avoid catching a mouthful of grit in my teeth, especially when the big semi-trucks disrupt the consistent wind, changing it into a moment of chaotic sandy maelstrom. Of course, then it just goes into my nose instead…. It sticks to my sunscreen, it sticks to my sweat, my hair, my gear… my poor, poor drivetrain.
I’ve now made it across the worst of it I think, from Tripoli to Benghazi, after 1100 kilometers and ten days of some of the roughest pedaling I’ve ever done(I can’t decide whether this is harder than winter in Scotland). The wind has been in my face literally the whole time, it’s true, but after a couple days, this becomes normal. It’s just slower. And it’s also true that this is probably the hottest time of year to be cycling across a Libyan desert. But I stayed hydrated, dunked my head and doused my feet(surprisingly effective – thanks for the Tuareg tip Saadi) in water whenever I got the chance; and, well, the wind actually helped a lot to keep me cool – it was really only when I stopped riding that I felt the true force of the scorching sun beat-down.
No, it wasn’t the wind, or the heat, or even the sand. In truth, the real most difficult part about it all, was the fact that Ramadan started the day before I left. Ramadan is like Christmas for Islam, except there’s firecrackers and the gifts only come after a whole month of fasting-during-daylight-hours. Which in August is a lot of hours: no eating, no drinking anything(even water), no smoking, no sex, no perfume, no swimming… a real fasting of the spirit. It’s one of the most important aspects of Islam, and Libya is all Islam – by law.
So in a country where every single citizen and probably most visitors are all fasting during the day, the restaurants are simply not open until nightfall. Many just close for the whole month. Shops or markets to buy food and water, which are already far and few between, are closed in the mornings, because during Ramadan, life naturally becomes much more nocturnal.
In Tripoli I fasted the first day, just like everyone else. Slept till two, sat around until the fourth a’dan call to prayer that signals nightfall and the end of the fast, then feasted! Every night is the same: it begins with dates and a glass of milk, and maybe a quick cigarette. Then muslims make a quick prayer. Then back to the huge platters of soup and home-made breads and rice with chicken liver and stuffed grape leaves or bell peppers and a great variety of delicious fried potato-and-meat finger foods, the special cuisine of Ramadan. Delicious and bountiful!
On day two of Ramadan I took off from the capitol, and for the first couple days, I decided to try to “do as the Romans do.” Somewhat - I knew I would have to drink water: it’s the desert, and I’m on a bike. But I limited myself to a couple yogurts or date bars for sustenance during the day. And I didn’t really feel hungry. But those days were hell. It turns out you have to eat if you’re bike touring, you just have to, I don’t care how religious(or crazy) you are. Two nights in a row, I found my muscles completely wrecked, completely without energy, in pain, whether I was eating or stretching or even just laying in the dirt outside some random tire shop on the edge of town. “How am I going to survive all the way to Benghazi?” Something had to give.
So I took a day off in Surt, as a guest of a nice man named Milad, and recuperated. I ate and ate and ate in the seclusion of the hotel room he bought me. My stomach regained its normal bike touring stretch, my electrolyte balance got the salt it had been lacking, and after that the desert crossing was quite doable. I had to plan ahead and buy food and drink the night before, and eating during the day was a bit delicate, especially since the only bits of shade(I can’t sit in the open sun or my head starts swimming) were usually taken by lounging Libyan men waiting for nightfall. But there is a part in the Qur’an that allows travelers to eat and drink if they’re going farther than 81 kilometers(must be an old chapter from the donkey-cart and camel-back days – an hour in a car isn’t an excuse not to fast, is it?), and once people realized I wasn’t an Arab, they were cool with it. Nevertheless I maintained discretion while chugging water and stuffing my face….
I met a lot of nice men out there. Here they call me r’halla, or adventurer – my new favorite Arabic word! I was impressed by Arab hospitality in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, but here in Libya, nearly everyone I speak to asks me if they can help me. It’s simply amazing! I’ve been given so much food and huge quantities of beverages, money, and offers of everything else, from phone recharge cards to places to sleep. I traveled ten days on only 21 dinars, about $15. There were stretches of distance that started to worry me, whether I would reach a shop for water before I ran out, but there was no need to worry – everyone and anyone will help me. It was awesome, but at the same time I felt a now-familiar sense of exclusion, like reading the big sign outside a mosque: “Non-muslims not allowed.” Many delicious meals were shared, but I was never allowed to see, much less meet or say thank you to, the women that cooked them. Several petrol-industry towns were completely closed to me, denied right there at the Gadafi-green police gate. And generally, people did not invite me to their homes(as in Morocco, for example), but rather just offered to pay for a hotel room. I guess it’s just a different culture, one with a good deal more modesty than mine, and in the end I feel honored and lucky, even sort of excited, to have the chance to witness it. It’s a different sort of exotic!
So now I am in Benghazi, taking a few days off. Ahmed, the Libyan man I met in Tunis(see the Bike Effect: Tunisia) lives here and has taken well care of me. I’ve been hangin’ around with a particular taxi driver named Mohammed who I met out on the road. He passed me three times on the way(making his passengers wait while he got out to chat), and now I am here practicing Arabic and tutoring English, though I can’t get him to stop using the word “standby” for everything, including “be” “wait” “stay” “live” or “sleep.” Ah well, he is a taxi driver, after all.
I’ve rested, I’ve showered(the water ran dark red from ten days of desert dust), worked out the visa timing, cleaned and fixed up my gear and bike a bit, and tomorrow I’ll continue, rubber side down. Ahead lies something called “The Green Mountain” which must be nice; it’s certainly not very desert-sounding, anyway, and I miss hills. Some more famous Roman ruins, and a week or so of horrendous Libyan traffic and humbling Libyan hospitality, and I will be in Egypt! Meow!!!