Cape Blanc: a 7-hour hike to the northernmost point in Africa

I looked out into the distance. From my vantage point on the mountain, I could see the Mediterranean strewn before me, reaching so far into the distance that it eventually met the sky. The rich sapphire of the sea blended well with the lighter blue of the sky, which was mixed with  unassuming snowy clouds. I took a deep breath. The air here was clean; a welcome break from the busy streets of the nearby city of Bizerte. I was too far up to smell the refreshing scent of the ocean, but with it laid before me in all of its glimmering allure, my mind almost fooled me into believing that I could actually smell it. I barely moved; it was a perfect moment.

“Done!” yelled Yee Man from about twenty meters away. The little bundle of joy from Taiwan ran up to me and showed me the picture she just took of me. “Do you like it?”

“It’s perfect,” I replied. Took her long enough; I was holding that contemplative-philosophical look for almost thirty seconds. It was a perfect moment; perfect to take a new photo to upload onto Facebook. We had just started our hike to the northernmost point of Africa, and just ten minutes in, we spent a quarter of an hour admiring the view and taking photos.

This is the picture Yee Man took of me

“Come on guys, let’s get moving,” instructed Slim. He was our guide and friend; a local of Tunisia. His job was not only to show us around, but to ensure we didn’t get ripped off by enterprising salesmen.

We were quite the international group. There were 7 of us, representing 6 continents: There was William from Oceania, Yee Man from Asia, Heidi and Urska from Europe, Slim from Tunisia, Joan from South America, and me from North America. Never did I expect myself to be in the company of so many cultures at the same time.

We begrudgingly left our beautiful vantage point and resumed our hike. Little did we know that for the next 7 hours, we would be treated to even more spectacular views.

Some time later, we climbed a rocky hill that was resting on the edge of the mountain we were hiking around. It provided us with another breathtaking view of the coast. Extended before us was a view of kilometers of sheer cliffs, rolling sand dunes, and pristine coast. Aside from us, there wasn’t another human in sight. It was flawless.

The furthest piece of land I could see jutted out from the beach; it was so far away that it was slightly blue. Out of curiosity, I wondered how long it would take to walk there. It must be twelve kilometers away at least. As I was pondering this, William approached me and pointed out the exact same point I was looking at.

“That is the northernmost point of Africa,” he said. “The cab driver will pick us up there.”

So that was our destination. Surprisingly, I wasn’t intimidated by the challenge; it actually excited me. Reaching that point entailed walking across the kilometers of sheer cliffs, rolling sand dunes, and pristine coast I was admiring. I knew right then and there that this would be a real adventure. I smiled, inhaled deeply, and took my first of what would become around 20000 steps.

The furthest piece of land at the top of the picture is where we hiked to.

This is Heidi from Finland. Behind her is the view opposite of where we were going.

The beginning was the most spectacular part of our hike. We descended the hill to the cliffs below. We walked along the edges; it was more exciting that way. I took in my surroundings with delight. To my right side was a sheer 30-meter drop into the rocky, churning ocean below. To my left were endless green mountains and hills, dotted by the occasional herd of sheep.

There it was now: the smell of the ocean. My mind wasn’t playing tricks on me this time. I could really smell it. It was wonderful.

These are the cliffs we hiked along. The small guy in yellow is Slim from Tunisia

After about 90 minutes or so of hour of hiking along the cliffs, we arrived at a beach. It was the beach of anyone’s dream: it had clear blue water, spotless sand, no trash, and best of all, it was completely empty. We took advantage of this isolation to take endless amounts of “action” shots and so-called “candid” photos. And I thought Asians were the biggest camera enthusiasts.

We capped off about 90 minutes of photo-ops, sand castle building, and dares to go into the cold water with lunch and then went on our way. The northernmost point of Africa was still very far, though slightly less blue now.

From left to right: Yee Man (Taiwan), Me (Philippines and US), William (New Zealand), Heidi (Finland), Joan (Venezuela), Slim (Tunisia), and Urska (Slovenia)

What followed was a 2.5 hour hike to our destination. It was mostly along endless stretches of beaches, hills, and the occasional small river. Time passed in a haze of inappropriate jokes, conversations of cultural differences, and glances over our shoulder to see how far we had come.

When we finally reached the northernmost point of Africa, the feeling was indescribable. It was an intense sense of victory. It really was amazing to look back and see the hill we started our journey on 6 hours ago. It was so far in the distance. I couldn’t believe we had walked all that way. Right before we bust out the hypothetical champagne though, William interrupted our celebrations with a grim announcement.

A photo taken as we were hiking. In the top right corner, you can see our destination

One of the many beaches we walked across

That white mountain in the distance is where we came from

“We aren’t at the northernmost point of Africa yet,” he announced, showing us the screen on his smart phone. “We still have around forty minutes to go. We were wrong.”

A short debate thus ensued about whether or not we could just pretend that we actually reached the northernmost point of Africa. To come all this way only to be disappointed was quite a blow to our morale. This proposal quickly died out though, because most of us felt that we didn’t want to have come all this way only to “almost make it to the northernmost point of Africa.” We begrudgingly picked up our bags and continued our journey.

We arrived an hour later at what we thought was our real destination, only the be proven wrong again, this time by some locals. We actually overshot what we were looking for by about 15 minutes. We walked past our goal without even realizing it. It was at this point that our group was divided.

The women didn’t want to double back towards the real northernmost point of Africa. The reasons they gave were like, “I don’t hike to reach a big goal, but for the views,” and “I don’t feel the urge to go back there. I feel like I’ve already been to the northernmost point of Africa anyway.” As far as I’m concerned, if you haven’t planted your foot on the actual point, then you haven’t been there. I knew that they would regret their decision once they saw our photos at the point, but it was their choice.

Our group then split into two, the men turned back and headed towards the real point while the women waited, munching on some snacks and drinking water. Shortly after, we reached our goal, confirmed by William’s smart phone. We made it to the northernmost point of Africa.

I stood at the edge of the cliff and looked into the distance. I didn’t move a muscle. It wasn’t the most spectacular view we had been treated to today, but it was beautiful in its own right. Below me was another sheer plummet into the ocean. Even though I couldn’t see it, in front of me lay the entire continent of Europe, and behind me was all of Africa. It really was an amazing feeling; out of 1 billion people in Africa, I was the northernmost one. Not a single person in Africa was closer to Europe than I was. The hours of hiking and patience have finally paid off. It was definitely worth it.

“Okay my turn!” shouted William from a dozen or so meters away. He handed me the camera, showing me the picture he just took of me.

“It’s good,” I replied, smiling. A new display picture to post on Facebook for sure. hehehe…

Taken while on the way back to northernmost point of Africa that we overshot.

Taken at the northernmost point of Africa. *cue Lion King opening song*

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Kairouan and 5000 Camels

“For your friend, I would pay 5000 camels.”

I looked at our “guide”  with disbelief and burst out laughing. I was with my Finnish friend Heidi in Kairouan, a city that many Muslims consider to be the holiest in North Africa. Her blond hair and white skin struck a sharp contrast to my dark skin and somewhat Arabic features. Naturally, she attracted plenty of attention wherever we went, and her camel-endowed suitor was the latest in a long line of Tunisian admirers.

I spent most of the 2-hour bus ride from Tunis to Kairouan showing off my much-envied talent of soundly sleeping on any kind of transportation. I did however wake up randomly for a few minutes, but this was enough time for the man sitting behind me to offer me some of his cake and almonds. As is the Filipino way, I politely refused around 3 times but eventually I gave into his persistence. I smiled at him and gratefully accepted his gift, popped it in my mouth, and fell asleep again. I awoke later as we pulled into Kairouan. The man behind me (hitherto shall be referred to as MBM because I forgot his name) was chatting in French with Heidi.

One of many identical pathways in the medina

We learned that MBM was returning home to Kairouan after completing his 3-day working week in the capital city of Tunis. He said that he loved foreigners and offered to show us to the city center since he was headed there anyway. Delighted at the chance to split a cab, Heidi and I accepted and arrived at the old town in a few minutes. Upon arrival, he insisted he would cover for the cab and hastily paid the driver before I could even get my change out. Classic Tunisian hospitality: they never let guests pay for anything. During my first two weeks here, I didn’t need to pay for a single meal or cab ride. They were so persistent in paying for my everything that I often left feeling embarrassed. To be treated multiple times a day really left me feeling extremely grateful and impressed with Tunisian generosity, but I still felt uncomfortable nevertheless. Too much of a good thing, huh?

Once we disembarked from the taxi, MBM insisted on showing us around the medina of Kairouan. A classic ploy used around the world on tourists by locals. I readied myself to tip him a little after he showed us around. He sure did a lot of insisting.

We walked around the medina (which is the old part of a city) for the next couple of hours. I was basically a third wheel to the unlikely pairing of MBM and Heidi. MBM kept on chatting with her in French, while Heidi tried her best to reply in kind. After an hour or so, she was obviously getting really tired of speaking French. Whenever Heidi and I would try to talk to each other, MBM would interrupt us and start up another conversation with her. MBM didn’t seem very interested in talking to me either, probably because I can’t speak the language and I’m not a blond girl. But I liked it that way; I was able to enjoy Kairouan without being distracted. And there was so much to enjoy.

A lady in a safsari

Kairouan looked like a city suspended in time. I felt like was plucked out of the world of electricity, internet, and airplanes and thrown into a world of ancient mosques, snaking medinas, and devout Islam. Everywhere you looked, there were people in traditional Arabic attire, unique architecture, and dusty streets. I half expected to a camel whenever I turned my head to look down yet another narrow alley. Kairouan is exactly the type of city I expected to see when I booked my flight for Tunisia.

True, Kairouan does not strike awe into you in the same way that the Colosseum of Rome, The Great Wall of China, or Adriana Lima does, but this city is definitely a place to visit for those travelers who are after an authentic cultural experience instead of a trip to a white-sand beach that Tunisia is all too well-known for. I would even go so far as to say that a trip to Tunisia would not be complete with a visit to this ancient city.

A mosque dating from 670 AD, the Great Mosque of Kairouan is one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world.

Our improbable trio emerged a few hours layer from the medina with rumbling stomachs and tired feet. This is when MBM invited over to his house for a late lunch. I was a bit surprised, as this is not normally part of what informal tour guides offer. However, as nice as he appeared to be, Heidi and I knew better than to accept an invitation to a strangers house, even if he did just show us around for a couple of hours. After much arguing (well, Heidi was arguing since I conveniently knew only around 20 words in French), MBM finally gave ground and agreed that we could eat in a nearby restaurant. We knew he was going to offer to treat us (vintage Tunisian hospitality), so we pre-emptively tried to convince him that we could pay for ourselves.

After yet another round of arguing, he finally opened the pocket of his jacket revealing to us a wad of cash and said with a smile, “You see? I’m a millionaire.”

The gesture was made all the more charming because there couldn’t have more than 100 dinar (about 50 euro) in there. While that certainly is a good amount of money in Tunisia, it is a far cry from being a millionaire. Heidi also pointed out to me later on that MBM’s French wasn’t so good either, so he probably wasn’t very well educated and couldn’t be very rich. And he still agreed to treat a couple of strangers simply because “he liked foreigners.” There had to be a catch.

The water that I'm drinking is from a holy well that supposedly is connected to the waters of Mecca. It is said that whoever drinks this water is bound to return to Kairouan one day.

Over lunch, MBM and Heidi continued to talk while I sort of spaced out as I ate my food. When we finished, Heidi said its time to go. It was the moment of truth, this man had payed for our taxi, took almost 3 hours out of his day to show us around, and even bought us lunch. How much money was he going to ask for? However, instead of him asking for a tip as I expected, Heidi and I simply stood up, shook hands with MBM, and left. There was no catch. Just selfless generosity, plain and simple.

Or so I thought.

As soon as we were out of earshot, Heidi explained to me that MBM actually wanted to marry her. MBM said and I quote:

“I have a marriage problem, see? I’m 32 years old and I’m still living with my parents.”

During our visit to the beautiful  Grand Mosque of Kairouan, MBM asked Heidi if she would consider converting to Islam after witnessing one of the oldest and grandest places of Islam. To further his case, he cited an example of a Russian woman converting to Islam after experiencing the solemnity and spirituality of the massive prayer room. For all of his efforts, in the end, Heidi gave MBM a wrong Facebook name.

This is too cute not to include! haha

So much for pure generosity. There is always a catch.

Oh, and the 5000 camels story?

That was the second “guide” we had that day who wanted to marry Heidi. Blondes really do have more fun.

I did a little research, and it turns out that an average camel is worth around 2000 USD. Multiply that by 5000, and I could have sold Heidi for 10 million dollars. That’s a pretty sweet deal.I figured I’d sell her next though when she brings her EU passport with her since I could probably get a couple dozen more camels if I throw that into the deal.

Although personally, I’d take the camels instead of the money and become a camel herder in the Sahara. It’s the dream.

This is the man who offered to pay me 5000 camels for Heidi. A quick story: he asked for Heidi's name along but completely ignored me and didn't ask mine. That's not the way to make a sale!

This is MBM and the back of Heidi. She had the chance to become Heidi MBM haha

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The Riskiest Decision of My Life

“What the hell am I doing?”

I silently berated myself with this thought as I boarded my plane in Dubai bound for Tunis. This wasn’t the first time that this thought had crossed my mind, as I had the joy of a nearly sleepless 9-hour flight from Manila to Dubai. I sat in the aisle seat during that flight, which as we know can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse. Whenever I was about to nod off and enter the blissful embrace of time-warping sleep, ever so hopeful that the next time I opened my eyes, it would be at Dubai, my seatmate would then choose that moment to suddenly decide to go to the bathroom, prying me from the sleep I was about to partake of. I was able to tolerate this as the call of nature is indeed a powerful one, and I would be a hypocrite to admonish someone for something that I myself would be guilty of with if I was in the said person’s shoes.

It was this potent combination of lack of sleep, my mind’s tendency to wander, and the small bladder of my seatmate that kept on making my worried mind ask questions.

“Two months in a country where you don’t even know a single person? Why would you do this Zach, why?”

“Why are you diving head-first into this? You have no idea where you will be sleeping, what you will be doing, or how to speak the language!”

“Why couldn’t you have just gone to Cambodia instead where you will be with people you know and won’t be in a land so foreign and far away from home?”

“Okay big guy, let’s be honest with our self, one of the reasons why you chose Tunisia as the country of your two-month long internship is just because it sounds really cool. Many people haven’t even heard of it, much less been to it. Well I hope getting the reputation of being an adventurer is worth it, you pretentious SOB!”

The list of questions my scumbag of a mind asked went on and on. I was practically tormented during that 9 hour flight. Indeed, travel is harrowing. Everything is taken away from you; nothing is truly yours. At least, not in the same way they are yours at home. When traveling, you have no bed, you have no shower, you have none of your friends, you have no family, no backyard, no car, no video games, nothing.  Of course, you can rent and find these during your travels, but they are different from the comfort and security that these things normally provide at home. This sudden dispossession of everything I have in exchange for the uncertainty that is travel is what was gnawing at me incessantly, triggering fantasies of moving my return flight back home to the soonest possible date.

Instead, I stepped on the plane bound for Tunis and thankfully I was able to attain the ever-so-precious gift of time-traveling sleep. I awoke 7 hours later in a completely new world: the Arabic nation of Tunisia in North Africa.

I took a deep breath, forced the negative thoughts into the back of my mind, and looked out the window of my taxiing airplane.

It was raining. I had two prevailing images of Tunisia: one was of a sunny Mediterranean paradise and the other was of sand dunes stretching as far as the eye could see. My first actual view of Tunisia was neither.

“Well,” I thought to myself. “One of the best parts of travel is having my preconceptions shattered, so I guess now is as good a time to start as ever.”

The airport was small, but I like small airports. There is no need for endless walking and navigation such as in the sprawling airports I have become all too accustomed to. The beauty of small airports is that all you have to do is follow your fellow passengers out of the airplane for 30 seconds, and then you are at the customs checkpoint. As I was lining up, I had the opportunity to observe the people around me.

For the most part, they weren’t in traditional Arabic attire as I thought they would be; some of them didn’t even look Arabic at all. I even checked their passports they were holding to see if they were foreigners such as myself, but they were not. The green shade of their passports indicated that they were indeed Tunisian. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn they were European. Perhaps Italian. Yup, my preconceptions definitely needed to go straight out the window. I remember how many people I’ve met in other countries who assume that Filipinos live in mud huts along rivers in the middle of the jungle. I found myself guilty of the same kind of thinking right now. It was time to stop.

I was able to get through customs quickly and collected my bag from the carousel without any problems; albeit with a long wait. It is my dream that one day, my bag will be the very first one the appear on that horizontal escalator of boredom. If that day actually arrives, I promise to treat everyone reading this blog to lunch! *Opens wallet and carefully sets aside money for 3 lunches*

After getting my bag, I headed towards the exit of the airport.

Now more than ever, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me. I knew not a soul out of the 11 million people in Tunisia. I had no assured place to sleep.  I knew as much French as a 1-year old baby, and I knew even less Arabic. Hell, I didn’t even know if my stomach could take all the spicy food. I waited for the all-too-familiar lump of anxiety to rise up in my throat, but nothing came. Instead, I felt the bubbling over of excitement.

I realized that the future held an infinite number of possibilities for me. I had no idea what I would be doing in a week, a day, or an hour; I didn’t even know who I would be meeting in a few seconds. But none of that bothered me anymore. I didn’t feel anxious. Instead, a smile shyly crept across my face. Not knowing what was going to happen with my life over the next 2 months caused adrenaline to course through my veins. Adventure was out there, about to slap me right across the face.

That is the nature of travel: being plucked out of your comfort zone and thrust into a situation where you know close to nothing about. Being ripped away from home is truly a traumatic experience, but as the popular quote goes, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what it is built for.” Traveling is when we take that boat out of the harbor and into untested and unfamiliar seas. Being removed from all that you know makes room for new experiences, insights, and wisdom that you never would have been able to attain in the comfort of your home. Traveling can make you see all that is wrong with your country, and at the same time it can make you appreciate all that is great about your country. It can show you parts about yourself that you never even knew existed. Travel can even make you love those you left behind even more. Indeed, travel truly is a beautifully harrowing experience.

I stepped out into the arrivals area, and there waiting for me was a lady with a sign that read, “AIESEC Exchange Participant Zachary Riskin.”

I waved at the lady as I muttered to myself,

“Zach, what the hell are you doing?”

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