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Tunisia: A Magical Train Ride North from Redayef, 1975

May 13, 2010

The journey from Redayef to the north of Tunisia unfolded at dizzying speed from traditional Muslim society to the rigors and pleasures of the modern world.  An old locomotive awaited me at the Redayef station, long past its prime, but the trip was remarkable for the view I enjoyed.  After boarding, the engineer made his way back to my seat. To him it was a singular event for a Western traveler to take this route and he gave me a surprising suggestion.

“It is an honor for you to ride with us,” he said, looking like train engineers everywhere, with overalls, a neat cap, and blue scarf.  Other passengers in the car paid careful attention to the conversation. I was decked out in my new headdress, looking and feeling very much like an Arab myself.

“Thank you,” I replied.  “I am happy to be able to see more of your country.”

“I wish to invite you to sit at the head of the train. The view will be excellent from there.”

“I would be happy to!”  It felt as if free will had been suspended; I was shifting with the changing breeze, feeling an unexpected lightness to my body.

We made our way to the front of the train.  Thinking I was going to ride in the operator’s cab, I searched for a place to sit, but he continued past the enclosure, with its rows of pipes, levers, and valves, where the train crew was stationed,.  Instead he continued on a narrow walkway that gave access to the leading edge of the locomotive.

In front of the engine, above the cowcatcher, was a flat space, big enough for a person to sit.  “Here,” he said with a disarming smile, “you can see everything!”

I couldn’t ask about the safety issue, and to refuse the offer of this special seat would be to lose face.  So I sat down and the engineer returned to the cab.  I felt like the figurehead on a great sailing ship, exposed to the elements.

The view was stunning as the train gathered speed.  The wind caressed my face and we hurtled along the route.  The tracks followed a series of gorges, plunged blindly into tunnels cut from solid rock, then dangled in space hundreds of feet above the valley floors. I was breathless when we arrived in at the first waypoint, the municipality of Metlaon.  This first portion of the journey must have taken several hours but I felt as if I had been perched there above the cowcatcher for only a few brief moments.

By now I was in a state of suspended animation, completely lost to the external world, wrapped without ego, part of the road.  The remainder of the trip to Tunis passed as if I were an exalted being high above the groveling mass of humanity.  That is the essence of true spiritual travel.  The voyager has no sense of the passage of time, whether it is measured in hours or in days. There exists an element of ‘beingness,’ of living in the present so completely and irrevocably that minor details and minutiae blend together and are wrapped around the continuum of time while the traveler becomes the journey.

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