Sleeping in your car in North Africa

Having just finished the first draft of my book on faith and travel, I thought I’d include a story here for the fun of it, that didn’t make it into the book and has nothing to do with anything specific.  Thanks to everyone for your support and prayers throughout this process!


North Africa:

Night was falling and we’d been on the road for a week already.  We had hit a part of the country with 3 major cities near each other and our usual sleeping arrangement (camping in a 20 euro festival tent we bought on the internet a few days before going), wasn’t going to get us anywhere in these rough cities.  Enter the brainwave from Dan!

“Peter, have you ever slept in a car before?  I think it’d be quite fun.”

I groaned inwardly, wondering how I was going to get out of this one.  I had indeed slept in a car at various points in life, and despite it being in pleasant locations, I cared little for the cold, uncomfortable, stuffy, public nature of choosing such fine moments to get some “shut-eye”.  Seen through other lenses: I cared nothing for adventure.

He didn’t seem put off.  And so we continued, finding a spot on a “business park” on the outskirts of rough suburb of the city we were nearest to.  Pulling in to what looked like a place where some had parked cars before, we put on the breaks and set in to brushing our teeth.  The trouble with brushing your teeth in the car, is much like the problems associated with anything to do with sleeping in your car: your car is not designed for this.

And so the door was opened to dispose of the toothpaste filled mouth into the gutter nearby.  But as if they had smelled the sweet aroma of minty freshness, at that moment, a pack of wild dogs had decided to come past scavenging, and just as quickly as the door had been opened, we jumped back inside, slammed it shut and breathed a sigh of relief as the dogs, after surrounding the car, decided there was easier things to scavenge that two scrawny Irish-men locked in a pile of metal.

After that brief excitement, we settled down to sleep, reclining the chairs of our tiny car to full stretch.  We were still a little nervous at how public that cars make sleeping, and were a little annoyed at not being able to open the window for air, lest some mosquitoes or bugs came in.  But eventually we started to settle down.

That is, until our next interruption, this time more unexpected.  Dan was the one to spot when the bright light started shining out of the dark and gradually getting bigger and bigger, as if it was coming towards us.  Our plan was just to lay low and hide there – it probably wasn’t anything, we convinced ourselves.  But the light did indeed keep getting brighter and brighter until it was close enough that we were panicking.  Who was this?  And why did they care about our choice of sleeping venue?  Catching small glimpses of a  figure outside moving through the darkness, silhouetted against the light they were carrying, we could see that whoever it was armed.  Hostel anyone?

And without further a-do, when the figure was still approaching the car, Dan stuck it into reverse and accelerated hard, leaving our first choice of sleeping venue in a cloud of dust behind us.

The fact that my clever idea of a hostel wasn’t much better, shall be left for another story.  Asides from saying that for about three euros, a night in a “prison cell” far worse than any in the west, was an interesting experience.

But it was enough to rest, and in the morning we were on our way again, laughing over the things that were panic moments of the previous day.  Everything in hindsight seems rosier.


Dying to Travel: “we died before we came here” (Book review)

I’m always nervous about stories of travelling to your martyrdom.  Partly because the question “what are you prepared to die for?” is rarely as simple as the questions suggests.  There’s a rare case in which Christians are taken by their captors and asked to deny their faith in Jesus or die, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable other way of viewing it.  I could think of the Egyptian Christians taken by ISIS on the beach in Libya, and shot.

ISIS Egypt

In other cases there’s far more nuance about why such folk are killed.  Was it simply for their faith, or had they been abusing their colonial powers or privilege or been perceived to be on the side of those who were treating people awfully?

In the first few chapters of this gripping book, “Emily” (not her real name) tells of how her husband gave her Foxe’s Book of Martyrs when they were dating and asked her whether she was willing to live and die for Jesus.  But as someone who also read such a book when I was younger, I was not only encouraged by the stories, but also appalled by some of the political warfare, colonial attitudes and sectarian bigotry that led to many of the deaths, or the lack of information to prove otherwise.

Thankfully what emerged from the book was a story of genuine love for North African people who had not had a chance to hear of the name of Jesus.  The questions the book raises are exemplary to get people thinking of what it would take to cross cultures and take the good news to others.  The stories she tells are answers to the common objections that are raised by others on why such lifestyles are foolish.  Wouldn’t going to such a place ruin your children’s lives?  Isn’t it unnecessary risk?  Do Muslims in North Africa deserve the good news?  Do you have to be superhuman to go?  And the way that she tells them had me wanting to finish the book in a day!  It’s an easily read story of ordinary (but obviously gifted) humans, told with honesty and passion.

The main learning curve for me, was again in the story of martyrdom.  For me in my Christian life here in Ireland, I’ve always been baffled that it’s not the “non-Christians” who have caused me most pain in life, but Christians at my side.  And the more I go on, the more I think that despite such great pain, that they were genuine believers and not just “Christians” by name only who caused this misery.  I’m still examining the scriptures to see whether this is to be expected and Biblically normal to expect this.  But regardless, so it is with this story.we died before we came here

Her husband is billed as being a tremendous human being, working for an NGO and loved by all.  She portrays his faults, yes, but largely has great praise for such a man.  But Emily tells us of believers who (despite being some of the better discipled ones,) were so young in the faith, that when they were confronted over some patterns of sin of stealing, they turned against Stephen (her husband) and wrote articles about him on fundamentalist Islamic websites, where they’d be seen by extremists who would quite happily “deal” with him.

All this is quickly and quietly summarised in a few paragraphs on page 133 of the book, nearly in passing.  She also explains that their team situation had been escalating between expats, and that because of other reasons, they didn’t defend him.  She mentions that Stephen had tried to do Biblical rebuke/confrontation well, going first to the individual and then the group, but she doesn’t explain how this might have looked in a shame/honour culture, or whether they just ploughed on ahead with their usual western way of reading that passage in scripture “if a brother sins against you…”.

It was this, that set up his martyrdom.  But like many cases of martyrdom, it’s a murky one.  Did Stephen die for his faith in Jesus?  Or did he die because he didn’t know how to pastorally handle messy cases in shame/honour culture?  Why did his colleagues or team mates not defend him and prevent such things happening?

Similar questions have been raised in recent years about other martyrs, right up to the most prolific of Christian stories of people like the Jim Elliot in the Amazon.  Why did they have guns on them at the time?

But ultimately, despite the grey areas and question marks over the story, I do believe it is a story where Stephen did indeed die for his faith in Christ, and that his story is one that needs to be told.  Because ultimately, in the Christian narrative, Christ is not dying for those who perfectly follow him.  Christ is not abandoning those even who deny him temporarily (Peter).  Christ claims a weak and messy Bride as His own.  And even when it may be partly our fault for the abuse that we may get, it is still abuse for the sake of Him.  No one made those Islamic fundamentalists shoot him (or whoever it was).  No action of Stephen’s provoked them, other than His faith in Jesus and his spreading of it.

And so I’m praying that this book would touch many hearts and lives, as it has mine, and be an example of Tertullian’s oft quoted phrase:Tertullian

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

I mean, it hasn’t always been that way.  The land of Augustine in north africa was a land where the church seemed to be persecuted out of existence for nearly 1500 years.  And in other settings we could report the same.  But in many cases, martyrdom has grown the church, and I’m praying such stories would do that, as many consider the call to die to themselves and live for Christ.  Emily, in a powerful way, writes that Stephen (and her family) could deal somewhat with his death in a better way, because of the words of a missionary (james Calvert) to Fiji and the Pacific Islands long ago who went before cannibals with the good news of Jesus:

“We died before we came here.”

And if we’re dying to self each day, and living for Christ, such stories of travelling for your martyrdom will be true, regardless of whether it is a physical death you are dying or whether a spiritual death of dying to self.

Traveller I ask you, will you be a martyr in your travels?  Will you die each day you live?

A pursuing gunman and wild donkeys: a tabletop experience

It’s a tabletop experience.  Quite literally.  And until a few moments later, a highlight of our Tunisian travels.  We’d arrived at the car hire place in Tunis to the amazement of the hirers.

“Where is your tour group from your hotel?”

“Um, we don’t have a tour group.  We’re alone.”

“But where are you staying?”

“Wherever we find a place to put up our tent?  We have some money for hotels too, just in case”

“Oh.  You are crazy.  No-one does this.  Why do you want to travel like this?”

“Well, because we think your country is beautiful and worth exploring”

And so our journey round Tunisia had begun after a short but pleasant stay in the capital.  Little did we know that a few days later we’d be up a plateau with a gunman standing behind us, blocking our exit to the only way down the mountain.  Welcome to Tunisia!


Jugurtha’s Table, on the Tunisian border with Algeria

I mean, we had been warned that the Algerian border territory was rebel territory where anything goes.  But driving through it on a nice summer day seemed so normal.  The music beating, and the craic still flowing from when I’d tried to ask for directions in French out of the last town we were in, from women who clearly only spoke Arabic and thought we were the biggest amusements to walk into their shop in a long while.  Either I wasn’t on form understanding Arabic sign language, or they were enjoying clueless westerners, but we went round that town several more times before managing to find an exit on something that might have been considered a road in west Cork a few decades ago.

It was 6pm already when we managed to pull up to the Guard Station in the next village a few miles from Jugurtha’s table.  Officially we needed to register that we were going up this mountain, so they knew whether we were ok or not.  I did wonder what they would do if we got confronted by Algerian rebels up there.  I mean, we were miles from this small Guard outpost.  But that was assuming that we’d even get registered at this hour.  After wandering up and down the street a few times to find the Guard on duty, and searching for a passport in the boot of our car (we hadn’t been asked for that in a while!), we finally registered and set off….under armed escort!

A fairly hilarious scene.dsc_0699

A bright red Kia Picanto with two lads messing around, with a Guard truck in front and another armed car behind.

At the road towards the foot of the mountain, one of the cars pulled off and signalled we were to go on.  The other followed.  Reaching the closest thing that resembled a car park that we ever saw in Tunisia, we parked and got out.  The other car wished us well, and suggested we take their local guide to escort us up safely.  We looked at each other.  Neither of us particularly wanted our hike to be spoiled by a random old man who barely spoke any French and seemed incapable of helping us fight off any Algerian rebels who were rumoured to be around.  We shrugged – what harm could it be?  Easier keeping him than trying to explain that we didn’t want him.  After all, what could he do to us when we went to sleep if we didn’t let him escort us?  Tell the rebels where we were?

And so we headed up.  Reaching the top a while later, we explored the kilometre of plateau, put up our tent, raked around with a ball (and with Dan jumping insane gaps over cliff edges, that I had far too many fears to navigate!) and then sat down to dinner and sunset.


It was then we noticed we weren’t alone.  And it wasn’t our guide, who was now nowhere to be seen.  “I’ll see you in the morning” being his last words about 40 minutes ago.  The one way up the plateau was steep and out of sight, and no approach could have been seen by us.  Maybe we’d been too cocky after all.

Particularly when we saw the athletic build of a man who was walking over the rocks to us holding a gun.  He was in plain clothes.  There was nowhere to hide.  Thoughts rushed through my head: we were nobodies….who would ever want anything to do with us?  Just simply two lads having fun travelling.  Though we did rather hope that he (or should I say “they”) hadn’t already “looked after” our car, sitting as the only brightly coloured object for miles in a barren landscape.

“‘Salaam!” came the voice, towering over us.  We scrambled to our feet to at least meet this man on a similar level.  His calm Arabic words that followed were not ones that I chose to remember in my state of panic, from my few Arabic classes I’d had one summer a while ago.  Obviously my face showed that.  Phew.  French now.

“What are you lads doing up here?”

“We are camping.  We’re travelling round Tunisia”

“Is that your car below?  I’ll take your passports”

I mean, I don’t know who he thought the car might belong to.  “No, I think bright red Kia Picantos must be how the Algerian rebels get around these days”.  Or at least that’s what I might have said if I hadn’t been panicking and actually sure that he wasn’t himself an Algerian rebel.  The hire company had obviously thought that giving us the only bright red car in the whole of the country was a fun joke to play, as we hadn’t seen one for most of our trip.  Supposedly black was the only colour for fast cars to be that year in Tunisia.

Similarly, there didn’t seem much choice as to whether to give him our Irish passports.  It was in these moments that I was grateful that I’d two passports, at least leaving me with an escape option, should the worst come to the worst.  And with British records of colonialism and war, there was no doubt that it was my Irish one that would be shown.




Our hearts were drums amidst an otherwise silent dusk.  Did he understand the English on the passports?

We didn’t care to ask.  And the next few words (still in French) were not said with a smile from his lips.

“Very dangerous.  Very, very dangerous up here”

“Um…sorry Sir, but why is it dangerous?” we hesitated to ask, unsure of whether the gun butt would move closer to our questioning lips as a reward for our answering back.

“Very Dangerous.  You have two choices.  You can escape the danger and I will take you down the mountain.  Or you can stay up here and risk everything.”  Or at least that’s what I got of his thick Tunisian French.

Dan and I glanced at each other.  If we were to leave, we at least wanted to know what we were leaving because of.  So we nervously tried again: “what is the risk?”

“There are many wild animals here.  Wild goats.  Wild birds.  Wild creatures.  And “des anes sauvages”.”

Well I didn’t know what “des anes” were, but I tried hard not to splutter into laughter at the animal list that we were supposedly to be scared of!  Wild goats and birds?  There wasn’t a moving thing in sight!  And even so, I doubted any would merit the “very dangerous” telling off that we were about to receive.  Was my French really correct?  Dan clearly hadn’t followed.  It was my basic French that would be the deciding factor to whether we stayed or went.

We stood at a standoff.  He still had our passports and clearly wasn’t impressed that we didn’t respond more to his stern words.  He asked again, hoping to add weight to his confrontation.

But we continued to stand.  Slowly giving us our passports back whilst not taking his eyes off our eyes, he gave us the kind of look that I’d get from my parents when they clearly disapproved of everything I’d done, but wanted me to learn the hard way.

And as quickly as he’d been there, he walked away to leave us alone again with a stunning sunset, miles of North African landscape, and fears that I should have paid more attention in French class.  After watching him leave in silence, we whispered: did he really just warn us about wild animals?  The doubts were nagging.  But we hadn’t travelled all this way for nothing.  This was stunning.  And not to be missed.  And besides, the Plateau even had a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide (albeit with a caution), so it couldn’t be that dangerous!

And so the craic soon flowed again.  The sunset one of my most memorable.  And our sleep much needed, even if nervous.  And waking to this over Algeria made it all worth it:


Our guide appeared out of nowhere, as if by magic, just as we were thinking of leaving in the morning.  He laughed when we told him about the armed man and our conversation the night before.  We laughed with him.  Until he declared:

“I laugh because you do not need to worry when I am here.  I protected you all night”

Ah yes…of course.  An old villager who could barely fight off wild goats was secretly watching over us all night.  How very noble.

And so we gave him a suitable generous donation for his “work” and protection services and made our way back to our bright red rebel vehicle.  Happily sitting in the sun, our adventure continued….for now.