Chapter 6 – The Land of a Thousand Horrors
Food Poisoning and Ghiblis
By dusk we were tired and would have liked to set up camp, but we had to close the miles between us and the others. To save time we ate our evening meal-two cans of sardines and some salted crackers we’d bought in Tripoli-standing in front of the headlights, our backs against the wind and dust. We washed the meal down with water from the thermos, but even it was thick with sand. We drove on in the darkness.
It was ten o’clock when I felt pains. They were deep in the stomach and came with a severe blow that gave no warning. I then began to vomit. I stopped the Jeep and tried to take water, but it only made the vomiting worse. I tried driving again, but after half an hour I had to stop. The pains had become so severe that I was bent over in agony. I couldn’t go farther.
I tried to help Woodrow set up the Poptent against the howling desert wind, but I couldn’t. I was hit with acute diarrhea. Next I started vomiting great amounts of blood. Then came fever and chills. I knew then that I had food poisoning.
Woodrow was so frightened he was stuttering, and I knew I’d get no help from him. When he went into the tent, I took a blanket and crawled off into the desert.
I grew delirious. I remember tearing off my clothes. I fell to the ground, wracked with convulsions. Covered with vomit and blood, I rolled naked and shivering in the sand. Grotesque figures and images appeared before me. The world was fluid and I was swimming. No, I was being carried away through a deep chasm of blackness. Then there were moments of peace and joy. It would be so easy to give in, to struggle no longer. But I held on. I called to Woodrow for help, but he didn’t come. I started crawling back toward the road. Al would find me. He would know what to do and give me something from his bunch of pills. I kept calling out to Al, “Here, I’m over here,” and I didn’t remember that he was hundreds of miles away.
When I opened my eyes and saw the first light of dawn it was all life and hope. Woodrow found me several hundred yards from the tent. He was pale and shaken. He swore he hadn’t heard me calling in the night.
I was so dehydrated that I was aching with pains of thirst, but when I took water, even a sip, the vomiting began and more blood came. Woodrow would have to drive, even though his hands weren’t completely healed from his fall. He would have to drive until we reached a doctor at Marsa Brega, 300 miles away. I tied myself into the Jeep and we set off.
The sun was as hot as ever, but now it felt pleasant to me, and whenever we stopped I untied myself and lay in the sand. And it felt good. Struggling back into the Jeep was the most difficult. Each mile we drove was like a day of torture. Hours later, my stomach would still not hold food or water. And so we crawled on-for 300 miles-without seeing a living soul.
By six that evening we reached Marsa Brega, the big Standard Oil complex on the Gulf of Sirte. I was never so glad to see an Esso sign in my life. We found the hospital, and nothing mattered anymore. When I awoke the next day, the doctor told me that I had had type-E botulism, which I had suspected, and that I had come within a breath of dying, which I had known.
Marsa Brega is an artificial port city, built almost entirely by Esso, on the terminus of its 200-mile pipeline from the desert oil fields, and it was a heavenly place to recuperate. Everything had been done to make the employee inhabitants comfortable. Its dining tables held fresh fruits and vegetables and thick slabs of steak. It must be the only air-conditioned city in North Africa. And it had ice water! Since we’d hit Africa, the water had been warm, muddy, dirty, minerally, animally, and full of bacteria. We’d filter it through a doth, throw in a few halazone pills, and force ourselves to drink it-abominable! But Marsa Brega had delicious ice water from electric water coolers, and I practically lived next to one of them for a day. Thanks to a letter of introduction we’d gotten from a friend of the Soussis in Tripoli, the Esso people gave us the run of the place, and I gained back some strength from American food-ham and eggs, buttered toast, and coffee-a few of the luxuries we’d foregone in our month of camel meat and couscous.
One of the purposes of our trip was to eat and sleep and live as close to the natives in each country as possible, and to avoid, at all costs, the air-conditioned hotels and tourist restaurants where everything was certified safe and sterile and innocuous. Our tent on wheels was as close as we could reasonably come to duplicating native living conditions in three dozen countries. It would not isolate us from the elements of nature which exert such a controlling influence over the people outside the western world; it would give us no more protection from the desert sun than any nomad tent in Libya, nor more relief from the dust storms than any native hut in Afghanistan; it would be as susceptible to monsoon dampness as any Indian village shack, as penetrable to the creatures of the forest as any jungle hut in Thailand or Panama; and we felt that our exposure to the forces and fears that shaped the lives of the people would better enable us to understand them. We would eat what the natives ate and drink what they drank; we would shop at the native markets, sup at the native stalls, drink from the native wells, and take most of the chances they took. We’d toss some halazone in the water, peel all raw fruits and vegetables, and supplement our meals with vitamins and protein powder, but these were our only concessions to civilization.
When I was well enough to travel, I found the desert inferno waiting for us right outside the gates of Marsa Brega. The air was so dry we could actually feel our bodies dehydrating. Then the ghibli began, the dread desert wind that is the scourge of Libya. The oldtimers had warned us about the ghibli, but it goes beyond description and further than imagination. It was a blast of pure heat unlike anything I have ever met before. I could not conceive of a wind being anything but cooling, but this was the discharge of a blast furnace. The temperature inside the car soon rose to over 120 degrees. Whether we drove fast or slow, there was no getting away from the desert blowtorch. It stopped our breath, dried our perspiration before it formed, blistered our eyes, cracked the insides of our noses, and parched our throats. We were being baked alive; but there was absolutely no escape from the searing wind until it died of its own accord two hours later. I would gladly take my chances in a tornado, swim in a hurricane, or spend a month in a monsoon before I’d want to meet another ghibli face to face.
The ghibli is so much the scourge of Libya that it can take almost sole credit for the desert that covers 98 per cent of the country. Irrigation and fertilizers can help make the desert bloom, but they can’t beat the ghibli. Flourishing fields have been decimated in a day, farmers wiped out in hours. Only the hardiest of olive trees and date palms manage to survive. Because of the ghibli, Libya cannot be considered an underdeveloped nation. “She’s as developed as she’s ever going to be,” one old-timer told us, “as long as she has the ghibli. Once that wind hits, there’s nothing left to develop.”
Bad news met us in Benghazi. I found Al at the Soussi Brothers garage, supervising a crew of mechanics. The potholed desert road had shattered the camper’s undercarriage, and to repair it, the mechanics had to reinforce it with heavy angle irons. And a tricky short somewhere in the camper lights was blowing the fuses in the Land Cruiser and defying every effort to pin it down. We’d be stuck at least three days until repairs were finished. Benghazi is not the best place in the world to be stuck for three days-or even three hours. The second largest city (pop. 60,000) in Libya, Benghazi owes that distinction less to its attractiveness as a place to live than to the simple fact that there is only one other city. Among Benghazi’s other claims to fame: It is one of the world’s most bombed-out cities, having been the object of one thousand air raids by Allied and Axis pilots during the war, and one of the world’s most expensive, being presently the site of most of the business activity connected with Libya’s great oil boom. A reconnaissance of Benghazi’s tourist attractions (which consumed eleven minutes) and a light lunch in one of its cheaper restaurants (which consumed as much as we’d spent for a week’s food in Morocco) convinced us that we’d seen all we wanted to of Benghazi.