We’d come down to the stream to find there was no bridge. Instead, lumps of rock protruded from the water at semi-regular intervals. Stepping-stones. “We cross here,” announced Eric.
“Hang on a minute, it looks quite deep,” said Jan.
“And those rocks look slippery,” said Petra.
“Come on, girls, you’re not scared of a little stream are you?” laughed Eric. “What say you, Saul?”
“Well,” I said, “we can’t go back. I’ll go first.” I took off my boots and socks, stuffed the socks into the boots, tied the laces together and strung them around my neck. Then I rolled my trousers up to my knees.
“Good luck,” laughed Eric, slapping me on the back.
Tentatively, I took a step towards the first rock. It didn’t feel especially slippery. Pushing off the bank with the other foot, I landed it on the rock next to the first, teetering precariously, so that I quickly stretched out a foot to land on the next rock. I held my arms out to my sides to keep my balance. I looked down at the stream beneath my outstretched legs. The water was flowing quite fast. It looked much deeper than it had from the bank.
Just then, a fellow in a long robe made of coarse cloth appeared on the far bank. The robe had a pointed hood, giving him an absurd, pixie-like appearance. He began to jabber at us in a strange, unintelligible language, gesturing with his arms and pointing downstream.
“Do you speak English,” Eric called out, but the man continued to gesticulate, holding one arm parallel to his chest, whilst pointing with the other.
“Habla Español?” shouted Petra, then, drawing a blank, “Parlez vous Français?”
The man gave up and went and sat cross-legged at a distance, watching us.
We’d arrived in Tunisia a week earlier. It’d been Eric’s idea “to go somewhere different” for a late autumn break in the sun.
“Can’t we go to Mallorca, or the Canary Islands,” asked Jan. “There’s mountains to walk up and plenty of bars.”
But Petra had voted for Tunisia and I, not wishing to let Eric down, had voted for Tunisia too. I hadn’t expected to find people who only spoke Arabic and some weird local dialects, and French if you were lucky, but never English. Plus, there were no bars, just Islam and mosques, even in the tiniest of villages, and people trying to sell you scarves which would stain your skin, or necklaces that would fall apart. And, of course, beg for money.
We’d found a trail that led to a small seaside town, Sidi Bou Said, “recognized for its iconic painted blue and white buildings, reminiscent of a Greek Island,” said the guidebook, and in the 1950s, “a popular hangout for artists and bohemians looking to unwind.” Apparently, these included such luminaries as Paul Klee, Michel Foucault and Aleister Crowley, though whether there was still any evidence of their time in Tunisia remained to be seen. Anyway, we’d paid someone of repute – an Englishman, living abroad – to have our luggage taken on ahead to a hotel in Sidi Bou Said to await our arrival.
Now, it was very important that we cross this stream to reach the town before nightfall, which was hideously early in North Africa in October – 5.30 p.m. in fact.
I managed to bring my back foot to join the other and immediately leapt to the next rock. It was quite slippery. I nearly overbalanced but succeeded in stretching out a toe to reach the bank, pushing off with my other foot to fall flat on my face in the mud on the far side of the stream. There came a slow handclap. I looked up to see the native’s toothless grin.
Then Eric’s turn. He was tall, perhaps six feet three inches, and his long legs seemed to reach effortlessly out to each rock in succession. He took the final jump to the bank with ease. There came a brisk hand clap and a big gummy smile from the native.
Petra’s turn. She reached out a slim leg to the first rock and pushed off with the other to land next to it. Then she lost her balance and seemed to ‘run’ across the remaining rocks, losing it even more at each one, until she slipped off the last rock and into the stream, which came up to her thighs, soaking her rolled-up trousers. Sheepishly, she pulled herself up onto the bank, with the aid of Eric’s strong arms. Again, a slow handclap from the smirking Tunisian.
We all turned and looked at Jan. She stood there, looking nervous.
“Come on, Jan,” I called. “It’s not deep.”
As if in answer, Jan peeled off her trousers, oblivious to the strict dress rules in the Muslim country, and began to wade across the stream. The water soon reached her pale thighs, then her waist, wetting her shirt.
The Tunisian sprang to his feet and began jabbering in his strange tongue once more. Well, he couldn’t see Jan’s knickers, they were underwater, so what was the problem?
We soon found out. Suddenly, Jan disappeared from view and came up, spluttering and spitting out stream water, with her glamorous blonde locks looking like a tangled mass of wet seaweed. There must have been some kind of trench at that point. She strode the rest of the way across the stream looking daggers at the Arab, who promptly disappeared.
We dried ourselves off to the best of our ability and put on our socks and boots, after poor Jan had tipped half a pint of water from each of hers.
The sun was still intense, even for an October afternoon, and we followed the trail along the bank, hoping that with our body heat and the sun, our wet clothing would dry out. Though in Jan’s case it seemed doubtful. Never mind, I thought, there’d be hot showers and fluffy towels at the hotel.
We’d gone around a bend in the river no more than four hundred metres from the stepping stones before we saw what the old man had presumably been trying to communicate to us. A neat wooden bridge with handrails, no less.