Down from the blustery plateau and into the farmland of north Tunisia were rolling hills green with alfalfa. Stone farmhouses dotted the great hills and as the sun approached the horizon a scattered orange light broke through the clouds above them.
It was as Savannah and I were walking out of village that I spotted a patch of woods atop a hill to my left. The woods weren’t far from town but they were far enough that I doubted the light of my headlamp would be noticed – not that it mattered with the police escort still with me.
I stopped on the side of the road and the police escort rolled to a stop on the opposite side of the road.
The officer in command, a man of maybe fifty, stepped out of the car and walked over to me.
“I’m going to sleep there.” I gestured sleeping with my hands then pointed to the forest. “La forêt.”
“There?” The officer glanced down the road as though to assess how removed from civilization we were.
He wasn’t in uniform. He was wearing a worn green blazer and jeans. If not for the large radio antenna propping up the tail of his blazer one would have guessed he was a farmer.
“I’m going to walk there,” I pointed to field of grass. “Then up to the forêt.”
I’d given up on speaking French with the escort a while ago. I didn’t have enough of it to put together any meaningful sentences and I found more likely than not the officers with me had a bit of English wedged in the back of their heads from American television.
“Here? In Tunisia? I thought Tunisia was a safe?”
“In the mountains dangereux.“ Something about the translation from Arabic to English made the Tunisians use the word ‘mountain’ for countryside. We were certainly not in the mountains.
The officer held up both arms and made a sweeping movement to show bad men could be hidden anywhere.
“It’s fine. You can go. I’m a professional. Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Perú.”
At this I pulled out the translator on my phone.
“I want to camp. Is there anywhere nearby I can camp?”
“Ouí. La forêt. Seven kilometers.”
I typed into my translator again. “Is there nowhere closer I can camp? There’s only an hour of sunlight left. I can’t walk seven kilometers in an hour.”
The officer pointed to his car.
“Can you bring me back to the same place tomorrow morning?”
“Tomorrow morning. You can bring me back. To the same place?”
“Okay, very good.”
On the other side of the street I disassembled my cart then the officer and I wedged it into the trunk of his sedan. I took Savannah in my arms and we sat in the back.
In just a few minutes we were nearing a roundabout where down to the right was a crumbling stone building surrounded by a few acres of forest.
“There,” said the officer from the passenger seat, pointing to the crumbling building.
It would do just fine. The pines around the abandoned building were tall and full. Not only would I be able to hide, but pine forests were always the most peaceful places to sleep – quiet and with a soft pine needle floor.
We stopped at the roundabout and unloaded my things. I reassembled my cart then took a step with it towards the forest.
“No, no. Wait.”
“I’m just going into the forest to camp.”
“Ah you’re changing police?”
Fifteen minutes passed. The bright orange light from the low sun shifted to a deeper, more red orange. The playful cries of two boys carried from a factory on a hill down to my ears. I could see one boy chasing the other with a stick.
Part of me was growing frustrated that I had to wait for the new escort. With each minute the warmth of the day was fading. A little while after dark I wouldn’t be able to sit outside my tent and make pasta. It was too cold at night and the dew point was too high. If I were sitting outside with my sleeping bag, by seven p.m. it would be coated with moisture.
But the new escort arrived with daylight to spare. They came in an armored pickup.
The two new officers were both stockier and younger than the other officers. The four men kissed on the cheeks then the old escort departed.
“Okay,” said the taller, wider and older of the two officers. “Go ahead.” He pointed down the road.
I turned the cart and tilted it over the curb to head into the forest. The officer stopped me immediately.
“Where you go?”
“To sleep. To camp.”
The officers didn’t understand.
I opened the translator.
“The other officers said I could camp in the forest here.”
The officers exchanged a look then burst out laughing.
“You cannot. Dangereux.”
I knew there was no point in arguing. Once the officer said I couldn’t camp I realized the previous escort had known I wouldn’t be allowed to camp in the forest. They drove me ahead only to pass me to different team. The roundabout was the line between districts.
The officers chatted between each other then got on their phones to find me a place to sleep.
My thoughts pulled away from them and I stared at the empty space between their heads. The only decision I’d be making for the rest of the night would be whether to tell the officers I wanted to camp or sleep at a hotel. And really, since I’d already told the officers I was planning on camping I didn’t need to say anything else for the rest of the night – the officers would bring me wherever they saw fit.
The heavy clang of a truck bed falling snapped me out of my daydream.
The officers were waving me to the back of the truck.
I put my cart in the bed then climbed into backseat with Savannah.
The engine roared as the officer stomped on the accelerator and the motor lurched the weighted truck to movement. Once we had some inertia we were sent zipping down a narrow country road, weaving between potholes and avoiding oncoming cars moments before collision.
The officer in the passenger seat was younger than me. He leaned around the seat to give me a thumbs up.
“Very good. Very beautiful. Good people!”
The truck was loud from banging metal, the roaring engine and the wind whipping in from the windows. I had to yell.
Because of the trees lining the road, the road was like a tunnel. At times it felt as though we were a bullet being shot out a very long and verdant barrel. But occasionally there were breaks in the trees and I could see miles of stunningly green pasture. If I didn’t have the escorts with me I could have found a thousand places to camp.
We were driving fast and after fifteen minutes I thought the officers might be driving me all the way to Tunis; about seventy kilometers from where I had ended my walking.
But eventually we came to town, then out of town, then we turned into a restaurant on a main road with a huge patio and a glowing white butcher shop where customers selected the meats they wanted cooked.
When we stopped an man leapt out of the window of the butcher shop comically and hurried over to the police officers. He reached into the car to shake their hands and over the officer’s back to shake mine. He was grinning and laughing.
Coming from America it amazed me how exceedingly warm everyone was with police. They all seemed to be great friends.
Soon more men came out and they were all laughing together and sometimes I made out the word American, but never anything more than that.
Savannah was whining because of all the activity.
Once an officer opened the door for me Savannah barreled out of my grasp and took off in a sprint but was caught by the leash. She bounced and sniffed and circled around me so I had to step through the leash to become untangled.
“Savannah, relax, relax.”
The owner of the restaurant was a friendly man with a gray combover and a flannel shirt that reminded me of the U.S. He didn’t speak any English other than “Welcome” but he said that a lot.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome. Welcome, welcome, welcome.”
We shook hands vigorously.
“Thank you. Mercí. Saha.”
The restaurant was on the P8, one of the main roads to Tunis, so there were a lot of cars. During a break in the traffic myself, Savannah, the officers and the restaurant owner walked across the street to a walled area with twelve foot tall iron gate.
We passed through a doorway to a private park the restaurant must have used during summer. A stage with a large ceramic shell overhang was the focal point. A concrete path lined by young palms ran from the gate to the stage. Bordering the ten foot yellow wall around everything were plants and ornamental stone fixtures. The rest was grass – perfect for camping.
“It’s okay?” asked the officer.
“Sleep anywhere. Not important.”
I walked onto the grass and parked my cart. Savannah made her way around the wall, sniffing her way along the base.
“Toilette.” The owner pointed to two bathrooms.
“Water, washing, toilet,” said the officer.
“This is great. Thank you so much.”
“And tomorrow? When you go?”
I held up eight fingers.
“Ouí. Is there food? At the restaurant. Pour mange?”
“Great. I’m going to set my tent and then come by to eat.”
I gestured everything as though I were playing charades; making a tent with my hands and patting my belly to show I was hungry.
A little while later I was in the butchery of the restaurant, standing with a family picking out their dinner. I knew the butcher from earlier, he shook my hand while I sat in the police truck. Standing over a beautiful and bloody slab of wood he held up a rack of ribs and raised his eyebrows to me.
“Ooo baby,” I said and gave him an enthusiastic okay sign.
I ate in the restaurant with a few other families. The meal was meat, bread and a spicy vegetable spread. I scarfed down everything, used about twelve napkins to clean my hands, then brought the bones back to Savannah across the road.
It was dark and cold so after brushing my teeth I climbed into my tent and into my sleeping bag. As I laid there I listened to Savannah cracking the bones and sniffing through the grass to find pieces she missed.
I looked over the map and saw the police had driven me twenty-seven kilometers.
I almost never had stress while walking, but thinking about the miles I missed was giving me anxiety. Things like finding food or sorting out where I’d sleep weren’t stressful, they were problems so deeply ingrained the human experience that they were just a matter-of-fact part of life for me.
But thinking about whether the police would bring me back, and whether I even wanted to go back those twenty-seven kilometers, had me frantically calculating implications.
Frankly I didn’t want to backtrack. If I did I’d be seventy kilometers from Tunis. Tomorrow I’d walk thirty-five or forty kilometers then I’d have to go through the same rigamarole of being brought to a police approved campsite all over again.
But if I walked to Tunis from where I was I’d be skipping a day of walking.
I never liked skipping milage. There was no point to it. I was in no rush to be anywhere so getting somewhere faster and missing miles just didn’t make any sense.
This situation had different pressure though. I wouldn’t just be skipping miles, I’d be getting away from the escort.
I’d spent over forty days with them. They were driving me mad.
My first week in Algeria with them I actually enjoyed their company, for the weeks after that I held up my pleasantries, but eventually the police had been watching me for so long that I hardly entertained them anymore. I’d say a few words then look away and ignore them – I found that the only way to get them to back off.
Being free from the escort one day earlier sounded like a dream. And those twenty-seven miles were for ego.
He walked every single step!
I skipped a bridge in Texas and a stretch of road in Colombia the locals had told me was dangerous. Now I’d skip a bit of road in Tunisia. Walking every step of road may be important for the record books or people on the internet, but it wasn’t for me. I was out here to enjoy life, not set records. And right now, with these escorts, I wasn’t enjoying much of anything.
Still undecided, I put away my phone and turned on my e-reader to distract myself.
After a bit it started to drizzle so Savannah entered the tent. She curled up by my feet, resting her head on my clothes.
I couldn’t concentrate on reading. I was only capable of grasping a single sentence at a time. My thoughts returned to those twenty-seven kilometers I’d miss if I didn’t backtrack.
There was no real excuse for not going back. It would be easy. Even if the escort didn’t have a pickup they could call for one and most likely the officers would be more than happy to bring me wherever I wanted to go.
It would be one added day with the escorts – I could handle that.
Two days then I’d be on a ferry to Italy.
I set my e-reader aside. It was especially cold that night. Listening to Savannah snore made me sleepy. Before I knew it I was in a deep slumber.
I would have slept nine or ten hours straight, but instead I was bolted awake by voices outside my tent. The bright light of a flashlight swung over my tent. In one practiced motion I unzipped the tent to let Savannah charge outside. By the moment she darted out I realized I wasn’t in the middle of the woods on my own, I didn’t need to release her like I did after hearing noises in the woods. Probably it was the police.
I heard the men say something to me about Savannah so I leaned out and waved to them that she wouldn’t bite.
“C’est bon,” I called.
The guy shone the light directly in my face.
I grumbled and went back inside.
But a moment later two police officers were standing at the entrance of my tent.
“Passport,” said the one without the flashlight. He lifted the door of my tent and peered inside. I felt a pervasively violated. This was my one little section of the world and this guy was poking his head in over my bear chest.
“I thought all this was done already,” I said with a snap.
I reached over my sleeping bag to get my passport while the officer held up the bug fly and watched.
When I handed the passport over the flashlight beam was still directly in my eyes. I held up a hand to block it and said, “Can you turn that thing away?”
My tone was bitter enough for him to understand meaning behind the words.
“Are you okay?”
“Ouí. I was sleeping. Je dormir.”
As I spoke it occurred to me how snappish I’d been with them. For as much as the interruption to my sleep was unwanted, it was important I remain on the police’s good side.
I got out of my sleeping bag and stood with them in the cold air in my underwear.
“It’s okay? No problems?”
“No. Very good.”
“And tomorrow. You go?”
“Ouí. Huit.” I held up eight fingers.
He gave me my passport then they went off.
I called for Savannah. She was wagging her tail in front of someone by the doorway. The officers shut the iron door behind them and I collapsed into my tent. The warmth of the sleeping bag enveloped me. I was exhausted. My phone said it was midnight. They’d woken me at midnight to check my passport and asked what time I was leaving tomorrow.
That made up my mind. I wouldn’t be backtracking. Tomorrow I was going to Tunis.