16-Aug-2008 -- I was in Tunis co-teaching a workshop on GIS and GPS to university professors and education officials throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They seek to use these technologies as they train educators and students in geography, mathematics, history, economics, and GIScience. Over 900 geographers from all over the world had been gathering at the same location for the International Geographical Union conference. The IGU conference is only held every 4 years, a rare opportunity for attendees to network, with a smaller conference every 2 years. Therefore, it seemed only fitting to cap these rare and geographic events with a confluence visit. The only question remained was if it would be possible, or in sha'allah, as they say here, to actually visit a confluence where I knew little about the local transportation methods and did not speak the language.
The confluence of 37 North 10 East was the closest one to Tunis, and therefore the most logical one to select, although as I gazed southward from my hotel to the cliffs and mountains, 36 North 10 East was tempting as well. 37 North 10 East should be close enough for a nice bicycle ride in the country. After making inquiries, however, there apparently are no bicycle rental outfitters in the city. This would be a good basis for a geography lesson where students are presented with digital map data on tourist sites in the city, and the students would use GIS to make a decision about where to locate such an establishment. While the free-for-all nature of the driving in the city would make bicycle riding a bit of a challenge from a safety standpoint, once out in the country, one could see quite a bit of Tunisia from a bicycle. That option closed, I inquired about a rental car, although my experiences on shuttles, buses, and taxis, and on foot, combined to make me nervous about such a prospect. A car would be available at 11 a.m. but would cost $ 120 (80 €). This was too much, but I was secretly relieved, not relishing driving where there were very few lanes demarked on the roads.
Two options gone, I resorted to inquiring about a taxi to take me to a point close to my destination. Two men at the front of the hotel and I had a discussion about the distance to my destination (one insisted that it was 100 km, which I tried to deny) and why I wanted to go to a place that according to one, "there is nothing to see." Finally, they agreed to call a taxi for me. I was soon on my way, and as the reader might expect, trying to explain to the driver my destination, with him speaking no English, and me, well, "ana ba`rif shweyeh `Arabi" (I speak very little Arabic). This was proving to be interesting!
I had no printer access during our GIS course during the week, so I had to resort to a map I had purchased of Tunisia at a very small scale, and a hand-drawn, more detailed map. These seemed to be working so far, as we were navigating toward the North, leaving Tunis behind and driving up a roadway lined on both sides primarily with automotive repair shops. We navigated around a roundabout and took the old road toward Bizerte, a new limited access highway speeding off into the distance. It is here where Google maps have very little data, and the data they do have is hundreds of meters off of the true locations of the road. We came to the village of Sebala (Sabālat Murnāq), with 16 km to go according to the GPS, and for the next 10 km, I kept motioning to the driver to keep going. The driver made a cell phone call and I found myself speaking to the driver's friend, and as best I could understand, we were outside of the area that Tunis taxis were allowed. I had not considered this before and considered disembarking then and there and walking the remaining distance. I did not want the driver to get into trouble. However, the driver turned left on the road I motioned, and we soon passed over the limited access road. I asked the driver to stop but he kept going, and we passed the 10th meridian. After the farmhouse that I had identified on the satellite image, he finally stopped. The GPS showed 1.6 km to the Confluence. I hastily donned my backpack and told him to "min fadlik" (please) wait. I set off at a brisk pace into the field beyond. The taxi meter stood at 8 Dinars (6.50 US-$/4.40 €). So far, so good.
Would the taxi be there upon my return? I had seen some people waiting for a bus in the last village near the river, and if I walked back there, I might be able to catch a bus back to Tunis. The combination of walking and bus all the way back to the hotel would make for a long journey, but these thoughts were soon crowded out by my first task - reaching the confluence point, and as quickly as possible. I was able to walk at about 6 km/h at first, as I stayed on an embankment next to a dry irrigation ditch, and alternatively in the ditch as well. I dared not look back at the taxi. I could see on the GPS track screen that I would eventually need to leave the ditch, as it was running to the Northwest, and the Confluence lay to the Northeast. With 900 meters to go, I tacked straight toward the Confluence, and the going became noticeably slower over large clumps of dirt that had been overturned by a plow. I had seen a few cornfields and other unidentified crops, but these fields were vacant. The farmhouse to the South was quite large with enclosures for animals, but I could see no animals or people from my vantage point. To the South lay hills that I would fly over the next morning en route to France. Beyond the hills lay the beautiful Mediterranean cities of Bizerte (Banzart) and Metline (al-Matlīn), where my geography colleague lives. I was at the north end of a broad plain in which the small river flowed, and Tunis lay at its southern end, in the hills. Onward.
With just under 100 meters to go, I came suddenly upon an irrigation ditch filled with muddy flowing water. As it was v-shaped and about 4 meters down to the water, and nearly 2 meters across, I was sure that I could not jump it. I took 10 minutes to detour to the South, where I could see a bridge large enough for a small tractor or cart. I doubled back to the Northeast upon crossing it, and reached the Confluence about 7 minutes later. My first Confluence in Africa!
I have visited over 160 confluence points, and looking back, most of them have been in agricultural fields. I pondered what was different about this point that could set it apart from the other fields, and found that a few differences do exist. First, as I bent down to tie my shoe, a large insect crawled past me, of a species that I doubt I would have seen in a field I recently visited in Nebraska, USA. It was a light brown insect, larger than a standard sized beetle, but much faster. Second, the hills in the distance were spotted with orchards - olives, perhaps. Third, the farmhouses were built of the gray stone common in Tunisia and stained an ivory color. Fourth, the soil was very dark, baked into large polygons divided by large (3 cm) cracks, which I had never seen before. I could not determine what type of crop had been planted here before, but something most definitely had. It looked like a variety of corn, or perhaps a thick grass for animal feed. Given the relative ease of visiting this Confluence, particularly if one had one's own vehicle, I was amazed to only be the second person to visit. I have been to 37° North several times in the USA, but this was my first time to stand on 10° East.
The Confluence therefore lies in a field, sloping about 5 degrees to the South. From the point, one can see the overpass to the limited access highway to the East, a few houses in the hills to the North, the farmhouse about 1 km south, and the village of Sidi `Othman about 6 km to the West. The temperature stood at 33°C (91°F), not as hot as it had been in Tunis the last few days (40°C), and as is evident in the movie, the wind drowned out nearly everything I said while filming. So be it! I usually like to spend awhile at each Confluence, but given the uncertainties that lay ahead, I only spent 7 minutes here. I walked back a slightly different way to cut more distance off my trek, and suddenly noticed a bright light to the Southwest. It was sun reflecting off of a car that was in the field. At first, I thought the police had been summoned to investigate, but then I realized that it was the taxi driver, who had driven a few hundred meters along the embankment to make my trek back shorter!
What a country! Things were working out very well so far. I broke into a jog and was quite hot by the time I reached the cab. Shokran jazeelan, I said to the driver, thanking him and offering him some water. I gave him the thumbs-up of success, entered the taxi, saw that the meter was still at a very reasonable 10 Dinars (8.15 US-$/5.50 €), and we bumped along slowly to the road to the South. It was extremely hot. I could not believe that he had ventured into the field with his small car. We reached the road and turned east. The driver tried to navigate down some side roads as an alternative way back to Tunis, and then I spoke with his friend again on the cell phone. We reached the main north-south road, and encountered some construction traffic. I had eaten nothing all day and asked the driver to please take me to a food store along the way. My motions were obviously not communicating well, and I found myself talking with his friend on the cell phone again, who relayed my request to the driver. We parked in a busy neighborhood and I purchased some bananas and other items. The meter was running and the crowd was heavy, so it took me awhile. I returned to the street to find that the driver had found a spot directly in front of the store. In 5 minutes, we were back at the hotel, where I gave him a tip in thanksgiving for all of his efforts. I wonder what he thought of the day's adventures. He was definitely aware of GPS and one of my colleagues noticed that they were for sale in one of the stores in Tunis. The entire trip took about 3 hours, much less than I had set aside time for, and so now I had time to catch up on some work that had been accumulating while we had been teaching GIS all week.
First, though, I found my colleague in the lobby and he said that we had one more logistics matter to clear up with the attendees of our workshop. We were soon off in a taxi with the bananas I had purchased, and cleared up the matter. It gave us a chance to say goodbye to them one more time. The confluence trek was indeed the perfect ending to an institute that we hoped would bring spatial understanding and networking to students, teachers, and professors around the Middle East and North Africa. We had made some new friends and learned a great deal from these colleagues. I learned a great deal from them and hope that we gave them something of lasting value as well. Ma`a salame.