Walking to Tunisia, November 1988

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In late 1988 I was trying to cross North Africa from Tangier to Suez when I got stuck at the border leaving Algeria.

I left El Oued early in the morning by shared ("grand") taxi and arrived at the Algerian border post mid-morning. After clearing the usual exit formalities I sat down by the side of the road and waited for a ride. Most passing cars were already full but after an hour or two one came by that had room and I hopped in.

Before I could settle in several soldiers came out from the border post screaming at me in French that foreigners are not allowed to ride across the desert. I started to negotiate the required bribe but the driver of the car got spooked and sped off.

Disgusted, I started off across the desert. It was not hot but it was mid-day, sunny, and I was almost out of water. The Tunisian border post was about 20 Km away, too far to walk under the circumstances. I was hoping to walk far enough away to be out of sight of the border post, then wait for another ride.

I hadn't gone far before I came to three huge Mercedes tour buses parked by the side of the road. This was completely incongruous in this part of the world and I wondered if it could be a mirage. Would the buses be full of retirees from Florida, on a gambling junket to the casinos of Algiers?

The truth was even better than that. Inside the three German buses were four gregarious Germans who greeted me with an ice-cold stein of beer and invited me in. The buses had been stripped of their interior seats and were filled with refrigerators. The refrigerators, in turn, were filled with German beer.

The leader of the group explained that every year he spent six months driving from Germany to Nigeria, where he would sell the buses, refrigerators, and whatever beer was left, raising enough money to fly back to Germany and do it all over again the next year. This was his fourth trip. The others helped with the driving and either went back for another trip or continued through western Africa.

They had gotten stuck trying to get in to Algeria. They needed a carnet, a piece of paper that guarantees they won't try to sell the buses in Algeria. They were waiting for the customs office in El Oued to open. Having already officially left Tunisia, they were now even more stuck in no-man's land than I was. They apologized for being unable to give me a ride to Tunisia, needing the remainder of their diesel supply to reach El Oued (and keep the beer cold).

After a very pleasant couple of hours drinking beer and swapping stories a car came along and offered me a ride. The car was new, clean, and air conditioned, and belonged to an American diplomat, stationed in Algiers and on his way to Tunisia with wife and young daughter for a vacation.

The diplomat had been stationed in Baghdad when the war with Iran broke out, Beirut when the Marine base was bombed, and Algiers when the food riots started. His next post was Washington. At some point I happened to mention the trouble I'd had with Counterfeit M&M's®. The diplomat reached under the seat and handed me a one pound bag of M&M's and a Coke from the embassy store.

I reached the oasis of Nefta, Tunisia just as the sun was going down, and checked in to the Marhala Hotel with its pool, hot showers, and floor show. My trek across the Sahara had turned out better than I expected.

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Jim Rees