By the time he reached Tunisia his pilgrimage had settled
into a routine. He'd start walking early in the morning. His pace
was leisurely as he pondered creation. There had been several
days without food, and a few times he'd eaten only because he
found figs or cactus fruit growing beside the road, but most often
people along the way would ask where he was headed. When he replied
"Cairo," they were greatly impressed and usually offered
him food and drink. As a rule the fare was simple, bread, cheese
or eggs, or fruit, or couscous, and tea, sometimes water. Always
his benefactors were friendly and polite. Frequently people called
him ibn Bartuta, after a famous Arab explorer.
Many nights Hellanback would be invited to stay in the
home of someone casually met along the road. On other nights he
would throw down his blanket twenty yards or so from the road
and gaze at the stars until sleep overcame him.
Beyond any doubt the North Africans had fewer bars, cars,
and TV's, but whatever the reason, these people spent much more
of their time talking to one another than did the folks back home.
Was there a connection between poverty and the will to
share? Apparently the people in North Africa were at least as
likely to be open, trusting, and friendly as any people he might
meet in the United States. He had never found it necessary to
ask anyone for anything. Because they had less to lose did the
poor have less to fear?
In a way the lack of challenge was disappointing. He'd
chosen North Africa for an acid test. The stateside media had
given the distinct impression that these people were decidedly
uncivilized. He was beginning to suspect that his mind may have
been propagandized. Of course, he still hadn't gotten to Libya,
home of "Mad Dog Ghaddaffi." His initial encounter at
the Libyan consulate held out hope that things might get worse.
In Tunis Hellanback applied for a visa and left his passport
at the Libyan consulate. After a week his passport was returned,
and his request was denied. His pleas for an explanation went
Hellanback believed he could complete his journey, but
still lacked the faith to make a long detour -- equal to the distance
from Morocco to Egypt -- through the barren burning sands of the
Chadian Sahara. So, rather than attempting to walk around Libya,
he decided to apply again for a visa in a month or so.
While killing time he noticed a few things.
People continued to offer him food, but he felt guilty
accepting the generosity of people who were raising families on
pennies a day. One morning a general contractor brought him breakfast
in a restaurant, and offered him a job shoveling gravel at $1.25
a day. Rather than live off the generousity of big hearted poor
people while he marked time waiting for the Lybians, Hellanback
accepted the job.
He noticed there were men -- every bit as human and more
industrious than men he'd met on construction sites in the States
-- who shoveled gravel from sunup to sundown, without union benefits.
He noticed lunch cost them only about fifteen cents when they
ate bread with milk and sugar. If the bread was sweetened with
jelly it cost about twenty cents. In either event it was a sizable
chunk of the daily dollar-and-a-quarter on which they supported
their families in rags and hovels.
He noticed that some merchants, and more bankers and professionals,
made much more and lived lives comparable to middle class Americans,
but that those living in hovels were far more numerous.
He noticed Peace Corps workers whose "meager"
stipend enabled them to live in comfortable apartments with indoor
plumbing and housekeepers. He noticed that the majority of Peace
Corps people he met spent most of their time fraternizing with
one another, little time with the natives, and had been in North
Africa longer, but knew far less Arabic than he.
Hellanback had approached the "Third World" with
the impression that Yanks had a corner on technological ingenuity,
but he noticed Arab mechanics, routinely rebuilding parts, were
at least as ingenious as Yank mechanics who purchase their parts
in neat plastic packages.
He thought he'd discovered a clue to all humanity's inequality:
some people just had more money than others.
On his second trip to the Libyan consulate, it again took
a week before his application was acted on, but this time Hellanback
was given a visa.
He split what money he had left earned from shoveling gravel
among his fellow shovellers, and started walking again.