Half-drowned and freezing in the Sahara
I had planned to take it easy for the last few weeks of my stay in France – go to classes, study for my exams, and enjoy the sights and sounds of Antibes, Cannes and Nice; however, as daily I plodded the 3 km to the bus stop, sat on the bus for 40 minutes, dozed through a couple of 3-hour long classes, and made the long, boring trip back home in the freezing temperatures, pouring rain, and gale-force winds that had become the unceasing reality of the Riviera forecast, I felt quite inclined to be somewhere, anywhere else. So I took a train down to the Nice airport and set out to find a standby flight – I went to each airline in turn and laid down my situation. 1: It doesn’t matter where I go. 2: It doesn’t matter when I leave or come back. 3: I have no luggage. 4: I am willing to ride in cargo space or overhead compartment. 5: I will wash dishes, hand out peanuts, or demonstrate use of life jackets and emergency exits. 6: I don’t want to pay over 100 euros… though they all had seats available, this win-win proposition was too much for their French minds to handle. All they could offer me were ridiculous, last-minute fairs (ex. 2300 one-way to JFK, or 400 to Amsterdam), so I was forced to take a train back for another weekend of doing more or less nothing.
Next, the heat in my apartment stopped working and since I had yet to sign any contract or put down any security deposit with the residence, I was not inclined to ask for service; additionally, the city had installed an enormous blinking Christmas display right outside my window that sent intermittent bursts of blinding light straight through my curtains from 6 p.m.-7 a.m. each day. So, with new levels of desperation, I turned to the local travel agency for help; asking for someplace warm and exotic, they offered me a flight to Tunisia from Marseilles, a week at a 4-star hotel, and buffet-style breakfast and dinner for 170 euros; this seemed too good to pass up, but the schedule overlapped with my exams so I went to my teachers one by one and tried to explain to them my simple theory that because of my grades and work ethic, I should be able to get away with anything I want – including skipping all my exams and fleeing the country; somehow this logic went right over their heads. So I negotiated with TunisAir to get me a flight in between these silly tests for 150. I did miss one graded exercise session, but the teacher explained to me that because it only counted for 20% of my grade, an F would be lost in the round-off. This was a clear example of French math, but since it was for once working in my favor, I went along with it.
Knowing nothing about Tunis, I opened up an account at the local library and checked out a couple of French travel guides. Tuesday morning, I packed these, along with a few liters of water and a fresh roll of toilet paper and grabbed a train to Nice. When I got to the Cote d’Azur airport Tuesday morning, I located the TunisAir representative who was holding up a sign in the main lobby – they directed me to “Terminal 2”, an unmarked trailer bordering an overgrown field. Here I bordered a twin-prop and found my seat on one of several wooden crates. Through the course of the flight, we had to get up periodically to shift our seats to rebalance the weight, and we would take turns herding the livestock from one side to the other. For our in-flight meal, they gave us a stick of jerky of unspecified origin that was supposed to help with the motion sickness.
Yeah, I made that last part up. We were on a modern airbus jet and made the trip in a little over an hour. As we whizzed over Cannes within 30 seconds and passed by Corsica in the first 10 minutes of the trip, I questioned why I hadn’t embraced the wonders of air travel earlier in the semester.
Upon arriving at Tunis-Carthage, I immediately set about getting some of the local currency, the dinar (about 1.2 to the dollar, or 1.5 to the euro (how fondly I remember the times when these were more or less interchangeable)). To my great annoyance, I found that I had forgotten my pin number for the ATM and discovered how truly dependant I am on that little card in my travels. I changed over my emergency supply of pounds and dollars and contemplated how I would survive for a week on 50 bucks. Dodging the onslaught of taxi drivers, I grabbed a bus into town; it dropped me off at the Place du Republique next to the massive Jawa Sandcrawler Hotel. The modern city of Tunis is basically just one big street, Avenue de France, I followed this to the train station where I attempted to buy tickets for the overnight to Djerba. Supposedly, there was a special card that would let you travel all around the country and get into all the museums for 7 days for 25 dinar, but everyone I spoke to seemed inclined to keep it hidden from me so that I would have to pay the full fares; the tourism office, ticket cashiers, and information booths all spoke no English and were behind huge glass shields sans mics so as to make any communication completely impossible. Frustrated, I set out again into town. I skirted the edge of the medina – a massive labyrinth of narrow passageways containing countless shops, houses, restaurants, mosques, etc. – about 6 sq. km in area, without the proper precautions it is quite easy to become lost in here for a lifetime. It soon began to rain, so I raced back to the station and grabbed a train two hours south to Sousse.
The weather was no better at this beachside tourist hotspot, so I began a desperate search for an umbrella; the first store had no prices, and upon inquiring into the cost of one, I received the somewhat inflated figure of 570 dinar. This seemed a tad unreasonable so I continued to a MonoPrix (department store – translated as “one price” – how such a place is permitted to exist in this society, I have no idea) and picked one up for 4 bucks. Having had some time to think on the train, I had remembered my pin number and went to the nearest atm to gleefully extract a pile of money to carry around with me in the middle of the night in this third-world town.
I went to a restaurant recommended by the guide and grabbed a four-course meal for around 4 bucks – the food here isn’t nearly as good as that in Morocco (or maybe I was just following my French guidebook too closely) but you can’t complain about buck sandwiches/salads and $3 menus. 90 percent of what I ran into was some form of spicy couscous, but tuna salads and something called a brick (a crepe wrapped around an egg and deep fried – about the least healthy thing you can imagine) were also common. I was forced to give up on my plan to avoid meat – every meal, whether vegetarian pasta or fruit salad, had a big chunk of lamb in the center of it. It was very handy to know some French in randomly picking new things to try – it never failed that right below menu items like rice and spaghetti, would be the delectable “tete d’agneau”, or head of lamb.
I returned to the train station to try to once again get aboard the midnight train to Djerba, but ran into a similarly useless ticket agent. So I gave up on seeking out better weather to the south and sought out some place to stay in the over-priced beach town. What I understood to be the youth hostel was about 4 km from city center – its signs were entirely in Arabic and the reception was closed – the only sign of life was a bunch of kids practicing judo. It looked as if I would be forced to stay at a real hotel. I first tried one featured in my guidebook, it was 14 dinar, but in order to get to the shower, it was necessary to walk about half a mile across the medina. Next I found one that was 12 dinar, but here the clerk adamantly refused to let me see the room in advance – this was somewhat disconcerting. Finally, I settled for a place that charged 20 dinar. It wasn’t the type of 4-star resort you’d expect to get for 16 bucks, but it did have two beds and a shower in the room. The owner turned the heat off at around 12 so the room was freezing cold for most of the night – I tried to negotiate a refund because of this, but apparently Tunisians’ love of bargaining ends when you hand over the money.
In Muslim countries, the first call to prayer serves as a town-wide wake-up call at 5:25 in the morning – perhaps this is why Islam never really caught on in our part of the world – at any rate, I was out the door early, and exploring Sousse, the 3rd largest ville in the country; the beach was nice, though somewhat covered with trash, and not without a touch of that raw sewage smell that accompanies any body of water in these parts of the world. I wandered up to the port where a line of massive sailing ships with elaborate figureheads were readied to take tourists on whimsical voyages to parts unknown. I wandered through the Medina which was surprisingly navigable at 6 in the morning, and saw the ramparts and grand mosque. Breakfast is hard to come by in Tunisia – the countless cafes only serve coffee and bread – but in the major cities it’s easy to find one of two morning staples: the first is “ble-ble” – chunks of bread covered in chickpeas and drenched with olive oil and harissa (spicy chili paste), the second is “glop” – I really have no idea what this is, but it’s somewhere in between coffee and oatmeal and looks roughly like how it sounds.
The real fun began when the souks opened, offering countless shops full of mass-produced Berber crafts with irritating salesmen who open every round of negotiations with their “really good price” of a million-gagillion dinar. Somehow these people had learned how to rip people off in every language imaginable, but they never managed to nail down my nationality – they would always start with Arabic (after I finally gave up on the khaki shorts and donned jeans and a toboggan, I apparently looked just like a Tunisian), then French, German, Dutch, English – they never guessed it right (out of the 355,000 tourists each year, under a thousand are American; I guess Morocco’s closer); even after I told them, they refused to believe me, and converted all their prices to sterling pounds for my benefit. The trouble with souks is that although you might be able to get a stuffed, musical camel or bejeweled fez for 1 or 2 dinar, these are not things that anyone has any use for, and it is practically impossible to discern the actual value of anything – I would start all my bids off at 5 dinar regardless of what I was bidding on, though once people started accepting these offers, I had to drop it down to 2 for fear that I might actually end up buying something.
After I had had my fill of being harassed, I made my way out to the catacombs; apparently there are around 5 kilometers under the city, but they only let you into about 100 feet of them; this provided a good 3 minutes worth of entertainment. Next I searched for the souk du animaux where I planned to pick up a camel or water buffalo for 5 dinar to carry me to the neighboring towns, but it is only open on Sundays so I was forced to resort to more traditional means of transportation. I located the louage station – louages are collective taxis where a driver waits until a carload of people are going to his chosen destination and takes them there; a sheet in each car displays the governmentally-mandated fees for traveling between any two cities; unfortunately, the names of the towns were always in Arabic and I never really had any idea what the right price was. The Arabic language is one of the major pitfalls I’ve encountered in my North African travels; everywhere else I’ve gone, whether it’s Germany, Holland, Catalonia or Flemish Belgium, I’ve been able to make some sense of the language, but Arabic is complete gibberish – worse than that, it’s gibberish written backwards; most signs are written in French as well, but bus destinations and any other documents offering critical information, were written solely in the native alphabet; to make things even more confusing, the “come here” sign is an overhand wave, and the word for yes is “nya”. At any rate, by running around aimlessly, shouting the name Kairoaun, I was able to find the right louage and get to my intended destination.
Kairoaun is one of the 4 holiest cities in the Muslim world – my guidebook claimed it was necessary to get a guide in order to see the myriad holy spots in the city; though I had planned to ignore this advice and rely on my usual style of aimlessly wandering around and running into neat stuff, one particularly irritating local had other intentions.
I’m not sure how I acquired the services of Mustafa, the 25-year old, non-english-speaking, cake-salesman/guide extraordinaire, but regardless of how many French versions of “get lost” I could come up with, I couldn’t seem to free myself from his unsolicited tour. First, we visited a particularly holy spot where a camel walked in circles around a well and operated a system of pulleys that lifted water up for visitors to drink for good luck; certain that drinking water from a Tunisian camel well would bring me everything but luck, I was content to take only a picture as a souvenir. Next, it was on to the mosque of the three doors. This was a building which had 3 doors and after that, two other mosques of no particular interest (certainly nothing to compare with the crazy 3 door phenomenon). The final stop was to a huge tub of water; my guide was unable to offer an intelligible explanation of what it was used for so I had to go with the twenty questions approach; apparently it wasn’t for swimming, boating, or washing the dog. Following the chain of monuments, we set into the souk to visit all of Mustafa’s friends’ shops; after each successive stage of bargaining, the shopkeeper and guide would talk about me in Arabic – this introduced a whole new element to the already ridiculous process. In another attempt to get rid of him, I said that I needed to get something to eat, so he led me to a restaurant with a menu entirely in Arabic and sat and waited silently as I ate who knows what… finally, in desperation, I decided to catch a bus 2 hours earlier than intended; after following me to the station, he announced his price for bugging me for the past 4 hours – 10 dinar; I bought my ticket, threw 2 dinar his way (if nothing else, he did a lot for my French-speaking skills) and ran out and jumped on the bus.
Buses work quite differently in this part of the world; none of them have toilets, so they simply stop on the demand of any passenger, or whenever the driver has a craving for a roadside snack. About 20 minutes into the trip, we stopped alongside a line of pastry and craft vendors, and everyone jumped off the bus to grab a cup of tea and some candy – I was left sitting on the bus for 10 minutes, not really sure of what to do. After around 4 hours and 200km of dirt roads, we arrived in the oasis of Tozeur at 10PM; this town rests on the edge of the Sahara, but contrary to the usual images of dryness and heat that this name conjures up, it was cold and pouring rain. A helpful cabbie offered to drive me to my hotel for 2 dinar, pointing down the road, and claiming that it was 2km away; walking for a while in the indicated direction, I eventually asked directions and found that it was actually about 50m the other way. The guide-recommended hotel was mostly outside, and getting to the shower involved walking a ways through the freezing rain; when I tried to pay at the reception, the desk guy simply said “no money” – this didn’t seem like an effective way to run a hotel but I went along with it; as it turned out, he was actually saying “no monnaie” or change, and when I tried to leave in the morning I found I had been locked in; I had to knock on random doors until I found someone with a key; he in turn, had to knock on some more doors until he found someone who could change a 10 (my two-bed room cost 5 dinar)… eventually I managed to escape and was off to explore the town.
I began the trek out to where I believed the desert should be, bypassing a herd of horse-drawn carriages ready to take me there in style for 5 dinar. I stopped at a camel/horse rental place that claimed the fixed price for a camel was 10 dinar/hour, this seemed somewhat hard to believe, so I kept going; some random kid who was bathing in the stream alongside the road chased me down and offered to let me ride his camel for 3 dinar – this seemed like a decent deal so I followed him out to the edge of the desert. On the border of the seemingly infinite wasteland stood some sort of strange, free campground; it had hot springs, a playground, and of course, an 18-hole golf course; there was also a huge metal bird and a big rock with faces carved in it – I climbed to the top of this rock for a great view of the oasis of Tozeur and the vast nothingness that bounded it on all sides. Afterwards, I followed the kid back to his tent where he lived and worked with a bunch of old Berbers, and was given my mighty camel steed.
When I imagined renting a camel, I envisioned galloping through the desert at high speeds, leaping over dunes and trouncing anything that got in my way; unfortunately the actual experience was more like what you might find at a petting zoo; a guide slowly led my camel along well-worn paths and let him stop to chew on shrubbery ever 5 feet – in an hour’s time, we had probably gone all of half a kilometer. When we returned to camp, I tried to pay him with a 5 dinar note, but naturally he had no change (this turned out to be a reoccurring theme); he tried to convince me to take a 6km ride into the desert and stay in a Berber tent overnight and eat couscous for 17 dinar (probably 7 with the right negotiations), but 6 hours on the back of a camel didn’t appeal to me, so for the extra 2 dinar, I negotiated a kilogram of dates, two wooden necklaces and a carriage ride into town; I left feeling as if I had ripped this kid off – it’s a vicious society here, and in the end it’s not the conmen or the tourist who suffers, but the poor, toothless, illiterate kid who meets up with the tourist, who is battle-hardened by the onslaught of conmen.
Next, I trekked into the endless groves of date-bearing palms; everywhere in this town the streets were lined with these things with hundreds of different species of dates, but I could never figure out how to reach the fruit, or whether it was legal or safe to eat them; everywhere street-side vendors would sell them for no less than 2 dinar per kilo, so I figured there had to be some trick to it. After walking for several kilometers, I found the Garden of Paradise, which might have been very interesting had some of the flowers been alive; next door was the Zoo of the Sahara with highlights like the pigeon and camel. Leaving the park, I continued down the road that supposedly made a loop back to town; after walking 3 or 4 kms, I became convinced that I’d be lost in the date palms forever, but then I encountered the first sign of civilization, a laser light show; sadly, there were no lights during the day, but they did give me directions back into town. Back in centre-ville, I grabbed some lunch (regretfully I passed up what may have been my only opportunity to eat camel couscous), and ventured into the maze of the old town. I tried to seek out the various mosques and other attractions, but got completely lost in the tiny winding streets, and eventually gave up; the souks didn’t have anything of much interest; there was one sculpture made up of a stuffed monitor lizard eating a stuffed viper – they wouldn’t accept my offer of 5 dinars; I went to a butcher shop and attempted to buy a cool-looking set of curly horns – the guy only spoke French so I wasn’t able to get my intentions across; even in English this would have been a terribly awkward conversation. So without any sort of souvenir dead thing, I went to the station and louaged into Douz, the true door to the Sahara.
Apparently Douz is an exceedingly small and boring town, with its singular attraction being when all the Berbers come in on Thursday morning to sell their goods and animals; the locals couldn’t stop talking about this amazing experience that I had apparently missed by only a few hours. It’s also known for its Festival of the Sahara which takes place at the end of December and features what are perhaps the world’s only sanctioned camel fights; it might be worth the airfare from America to catch this. When I got into town, the rain had completely flooded the streets and the only way to get around was to leap from brick to brick on paths that had been laid across the roads. I was inclined to louage right out of this underwater village, but found that I had no money and the only ATM in town was out of funds, so I was forced to stick around for a time. I got a room at a motel for the student rate of 3 dinar; I wasn’t at all sure whether the kid who showed up to hand me my key actually had any affiliation with the motel – he spoke a fast French/Arabic/English mix and sounded remarkably like that one coach from The Water Boy – but in the end, I got a room, he got 3 dinar, everybody won; my room had a double bed as well as two single beds, and other than the door not closing all the way and the impression that nothing had been cleaned in a really long time, it was not a bad little place; I didn’t get much sleep because someone had just sent me an email assuring me that my bed would be infested with scorpions.
In the morning, I set out to find the desert and the Grand Dune d’Ofra. I fought my way through countless offers to rent a camel (there are over 1800 available in this town), and trudged out in the sands; the grand dune wasn’t all that big – maybe 10 meters high – if you really want to see a lot of sand, I recommend the 100m sand dune on the Outer Banks. I wasn’t terribly sure what to do in the desert. There were no real destinations, since the dunes continued out for a few hundred km on three sides; I grabbed a stick and starting rooting around in little holes in the sand to try to find scorpions and pit vipers to take home as souvenirs probably better that I was unsuccessful in this effort. I visited a small oasis and tried chimneying up some palm trees to grab some dates, but this too proved impossible. The sun was finally out, and it began to feel remarkably like one of those movies where someone is crawling through the sand, searching desperately for shade and water, so I grabbed a taxi for the 2 km back into town (for one-half dinar) to check out the souks. These markets were rather unusual since they offered what appeared to be fixed prices; I would go into a store and inquire into the price of a camel-hair jacket; the owner would say 25 dinar; following the usual pattern, I would say “trop cher” and walk out; after repeating this process for the 4th time without being stopped, I began to suspect that this might be the actual price. Feeling a little uneasy shopping without constant harassment and nonsense prices, I went to the station and louaged to the hub of Gabes.
It was on this ride that I met up with an English couple fresh out of law school; they too had been tricked into thinking that Tunisia offered sun and warmth, and were following much the same circuit that I was. When we got to Gabes, we sought out another louage to the ancient hill town of Matmata. On the road in, one could see a Hollywood-style sign saying “Welcome to Matmata” in French, Arabic and English; the streets were lined on both sides with cave dwellings built into the hillsides with signs advertising “troglodyte houses”. To escape the harsh extremes of the desert climate, thousands of Matmatians live underground; they’ve constructed extensive networks of tunnels to go among the houses and stores. We stayed at one of three troglodyte hotels in the area; for 12 bucks, you get to sleep in a cave in a hole in the ground, and though the hole had no roof whatsoever, this was by far the warmest place I stayed the whole trip. After getting moved in to our respective hollows, we set out to explore town; every person who approached us first addressed me in Arabic, and had I known how to say much of anything in that crazy language, I would probably have been able to pass myself off as the tourists’ guide and thus escape the inevitable harassment. As it was, we got a slew of offers from children to visit their houses for 6 dinar (this could probably be a very profitable venture for Jessie and Michael; I’m sure there are plenty of northerners who would pay 6 dinar to see how real Floridians live); every kid we ran into had a very limited English vocabulary – following the offer of the tour, each would ask in the exact same sequence “do you have a pen?”, “do you have gum?”, “do you have money?”; pens are apparently an exceptionally valuable commodity in this part of the world – I could never figure out why. We visited one of the other hotels “Sidi Driss” which was used as the Lars family homestead in ‘77 and again for Anakin’s home in ‘99; the holes joining the rooms had been fitted with the typical space-age, rubberized door frames. Next we walked up to the Matmata sign and I tried to convince the Englishman to jog over to the neighboring mountain to take my picture behind the giant letters, but he was too lazy so I had to settle for a picture of “atamtaM” and the surreal landscape that unfolded beyond it. The Brits returned to the hotel and I was left to explore the village on my own; when not accompanied by the obvious tourists, I was allowed to pass through the streets unhindered; I could see the glowing eyes peering out from the recesses of the caves, but none of the little cloaked devils made any advance; my disguise was so perfect that someone stopped and asked for directions – I didn’t understand where they were trying to go so I just grunted and pointed down the road; hopefully I didn’t get them too lost. Eventually, I went back to the hotel for a massive family-style dinner of soup, couscous and bricks with the other tourists, and since the town offered nothing terribly exciting in the way of nightlife, settled in for the night.
I had been told that the bus for Gabes left at 6 in the morning, so I decided I would have to skip the hotel’s free “petit dejeuner” (which started at 6) and make my way to the station; however, when I got there I found there was no bus, and a nearby store clerk informed me that it didn’t actually come until 6:30; some creepy old guy offered to take me in his truck for 10 dinar, but I thought it better just to wait; so naturally I raced back to the hotel in the hope of grabbing some food; I don’t know why I go to so much trouble for hotel breakfast over here; it’s always just coffee and bread; I guess more than anything it’s just a morbid curiosity to see just how pitiful it is. So I downed a liter of milk and half a baguette in about 5 minutes and ran the km back to the station (this was really dumb). I arrived just in time to see my bus pull away; the next one wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 7:30, so I jumped in a louage (oddly, the same one that had brought me into town), and since he was really bored this early in the morning, he was willing to take me by myself (rather than waiting for 7 more people) for no additional charge.
In Gabes, I had to find transport onward to Djerba; it seemed no one really wanted to go there, so I ended up waiting in an 8-person louage for a good 45 minutes before we set out. I was sure I would have to change cars at some point, but the van simply drove to the harbor, boarded the ferry, and after getting off, continued to the island’s main city of Homt Souk. For some reason, we encountered police stops on both sides of the channel; at the second one, the cop singled me out, asked me a long string of questions, and called up and reserved a room for me at a local hotel (though I had no intention of staying overnight).
The isle of Djerba is the hotspot of the Tunisian tourist industry; it has lots of beaches, souks, forts, and an active sponge trade. Arriving at the station, the first stop was the famed fish market; here three old men hold out fish and auction them off to the gathered masses; there’s a restaurant next door that will take whatever you buy and cook it for lunch; this was very tempting but proved impossible for me to do since the auctioneers were shouting their prices in Arabic (or possibly auctioneer French), so I really had no idea what I would be buying or how much I’d be paying for it. Next it was onward to the various spice and handcraft souks; the salesmen of Djerba are really messed up (perhaps this has to do with being descended from the members of an isolated island community) – every one of them is cross-eyed, and when speaking to you, will inadvertently shift from English into German midway through a sentence; I tried to explain to them that English-speaking people don’t necessarily speak any German and tried to force them over to all-French, but had no luck; eventually I just started alternating my responses between English and Klingon – this scared most of them off. The goods here were mostly overpriced and my only purchase on the island was a quarter-kilogram of somewhat fly-infested dates for roughly a dime – strangely, this turned out to be a poor decision, and put an end to the perfect health that I enjoyed up to this point; the bathrooms in Tunisia are much better than those in Morocco – most have a bowl rather than a hole in the floor and have real plumbing instead of just a bucket of water; however, they are still universally disgusting – whether you’re in an upscale restaurant or fancy hotel, the odor and appearance is worse than your worst porta-pottie tale from the states; I don’t know why this is the case, since most of the bathrooms have full-time maids – it’s as if western civilization possesses some profound cleaning technology that remains hidden to these people – every cleaning procedure I encountered here consisted of simply sloshing a bucket-full of water over walls, floor and bowls.
My next stop was the port; here there were motor boats disguised as pirate ships and other touristy vessels, as well as fishing boats filled with thousands of clay pots (no idea what these were for). My guidebook recommended that I commission a fisherman to take me out to the nearby islands of flamingos perhaps this would have been possible had I known French, but either way, it didn’t seem like a terribly smart idea. Near the port was a rather impressive fort of some kind.
The plan was to catch the bus/train back to Tunis around 9 that night; like everywhere else on this trip, Homt Souk had a whole lot of nothing going on at night; all the Arabs gathered in cafes to drink the a la menthe and smoke the chicha (this is a type of tobacco; most cafes offer water pipes for rent); so I was left to wander up and down the coast; going through the souks, I noticed that all of the ceramics and sandstones that were offered for thousands of dinar during the day were simply left out unguarded during the night – this gave some indication of their true value. Towards 8, I proceeded to the station; it was here that I met the only American that I encountered during the whole trip. He turned out to be a hiker/sea kayaker from San Francisco who was over in Sicily for a family event and decided to grab a boat to Tunisia since he was “in the neighborhood” and had heard it was a warm and sunny place. While we were waiting some random guy walked up to us and said “police, passport?”, we naturally asked to see an ID. The man simply chuckled and walked away; he came back a few minutes later with what appeared to be a legitimate badge, so we handed over our passports one at a time, and much to my surprise and delight, got them both back.
The bus took us as far as Gabes, following the same road-ferry-road routine as before, and then we boarded the overnight train; this was easily more comfortable than anything I’ve ridden in Europe, and so when we arrived in the capitol at 6:30 in the morning, I was practically well-rested. The other American checked into his hotel by the station, and I continued into the medina to try to locate the hostel. After wandering through the convoluted passageways for an hour or so, I finally found it and dropped off my bag; it was quite an impressive place with elaborate designs carved into walls and ceilings and a massive skylight overhead; it turned out that I was, for the first time this trip, sharing a room with 2 other guys, the hostel’s only other patrons, and despite this lack of privacy, I was paying the unusually high price of 7 dinar. I spent the next few hours wandering through the old town, trying to get some sense of bearings but failing miserably; I did manage to meander by the grand mosque, national library, and several other impressive sights; when I finally escaped into the light of day, I found myself on the side opposite from where I had expected and was forced to walk several kms around; the town’s catholic church(one of 7 in the country) is one of the most impressive structures in the town’s skyline and stands as a mighty cut by western culture into the heart of this alien world; I attended one of its two Masses (it was in Italian, the later one was in French).
Next I set out to find the Bardo museum about which the other American had raved for some time. It was filled with thousands of square feet of elaborate mosaics covering walls, ceiling and floor, along with many sculptures, jewelry and an exhibition of Italian silverware. From here, I made my way to the Parc du Belvedere and the zoo that lay within; this place was in a state of utter lawlessness – people were tossing food to the baboons to make them do tricks, little children were pelting the hippopotami with tiny oranges, an old homeless woman had taken up residence in the duck exhibit (or perhaps ducks had moved into the old lady display), and a group of teenagers snuck in by scaling a 20 foot, barbwire fence. The animals were fairly typical: lions, bears, seals, elephants… sadly the one animal I had wanted to see, the camel, was strangely absent. Once again there was a rather extensive pigeon collection; the pigeons that flew about freely just beyond their caged comrades must have found this most peculiar.
It’s not really possible to aimlessly wander the streets of Tunis, since at every corner there are a half-a-dozen heavily armed police. These people were obviously extremely bored and each group felt compelled to stop me and ask where I was from, where I was going, how I liked Tunisia, what I did for a living, if I played any sports, if I could be any animal what would it be – more than anything, I think they just enjoyed testing my French; I was eventually persuaded to give up on my ambling and grab a bus.
Sooner or later, I made my way to the TGM station, which is a sort of metro that crosses the water to the towns along the coast; I went into Carthage and explored the Punic ports; unfortunately it was getting dark so I couldn’t make out the rest of the ruins, but from what I’ve read, there’s not much left of them; the town is nowadays mostly a bunch of high-end residential complexes.
Returning to town, I went down the main drag to the old city; the Medina was rather scary at night – all the stores and restaurants were closed and no moonlight was able to penetrate its thick shell; I inadvertently made my way into the Kasbah’s red light district – a series of narrow walkways where lines of men peered through open doors at large Arabic women posing seductively in full-length robes and facial scarves – tres bizarre. Sooner or later I found the hostel once again and settled in for the night.
Giving myself plenty of time to get to my 8:30 flight, I left the hostel around 5; my initial plan was to catch a taxi, but although it costs around a quarter a km for any other destination in the country, it’s about 10 dinar to get to the airport. I had to take my chances with the all-Arabic bus system; I asked around and boarded a bus that supposedly went to the airport; after about 10 minutes, they apparently changed the designations, and moved me to the next bus in the line; another 15 minutes passed and they transferred me to yet another bus; this one eventually left, did several loops around town, and arrived at my terminal around 7. Thinking that there would surely be plentiful ble-ble or glop for breakfast near my gate, I immediately checked in and went through security; much to my dismay, I found that they only had ultra-expensive cookies and coffee, and worse yet, all the prices were in Euros. Luckily there was an unscheduled breakfast on the plane, and by pitifully staring at my empty plate and at the stewardess, I was able to get a second helping despite the language barrier.
When I arrived in Nice, I grabbed the direct bus to school – it costs 10 euros to go this 20km, roughly the same price as it costs to go 400km in North Africa. I got off the bus and into school less than an hour after landing and arrived just in time for my first exam – what a rush.