|Dateline:||Friday 2.7.1999 7:36|
|Location:||Auberge du Jeunesse, the Medina, Tunis, Tunisia|
Whoo! I am in AFRICA! Bongo bongo! As usual, a course of action that seemed dubious beforehand has turned out brilliant in practice...
The flight here gave a little taste of what was to come. Sitting next to me was a beautiful veiled Muslim girl, so of course I wondered whether she has ever sat this close to an unrelated man before. Most probably yes, as halfway through the flight she went to the bathroom armed with a stack of boxes -- and came out dressed in the latest Western fashions. She sat down, pulled out a strongbox filled with Arabic jewelry and started applying makeup. On the other side of the aisle, a Bedouin grandmother with a tattooed face stared grumpily into emptiness.
All in all, however, Tunis is surprisingly Western in feel: the ville nouvelle is straight out of France, the roads are wide, the buildings are tall and modern, there are lots of shops, the place looks affluent and quite un-Arabic with most signs in French. The old medina's narrow, twisty alleyways are more "authentic" in feel, although even they have paved streets and plenty of road signs, which made finding the (nice!) youth hostel much easier than I would have expected. I've already met some interesting people: Okuda-san from Japan, who actually came from Malta on the same flight (and whom I met when trying to work the bus system at the airport), plus Antoine from France, a student of Arabic and a northern Africa expert, although this was the first time in Tunis for all three of us. Everything is cheap, a 4-course dinner cost 5 TD (~$5) with drinks and tips included, as did bed & breakfast at the hostel. So far only two negatives: it's even hotter than Malta (and shorts are not "allowed"), and 3½ days here won't be enough for anything...
This must be the first time that the mere act of writing has caused me to break out in a sweat -- phee-ew is it hot. Anyway, turns out I'll have 4½ days to poke around, as the hydrofoil has been discontinued -- it's a good thing the sole departure of the weekly boat is on Monday! But it does look like my return through Italy will be pretty hardcore if I expect to make it to Geneva by Wednesday...
Things never look quite as rosy the day after in the harsh Saharan sunlight, but the medina remains an Experience. Tiny shops overflowing with stuff; people selling, buying, milling about; skeletal cats lurking in the shadows; the smells of essential oils, spices, frying food and rotting garbage; the sounds of the muezzin, raï, football on the radio, Arabic and French... The Tunis medina's main routes are labeled "touristique", but even a few steps off the beaten track it's a real, working market. Behind the often scruffy facades hide old palaces (like the youth hostel!), mosques, medersas (Islamic schools), ...
Usman the Senegalese-Frenchman (or should I just say black? why do we care anyway?) was added to our merry crew today -- it was amusing to see him & Okuda communicate in that international lingua franca... Arabic! Then again, the sight of Okuda and me chattering away in Japanese elicited more than a few surprised reactions. Tunisia seems to be one of those few plates on this planet where English is of little use.
Carthago delenda est!-- Cato, 149 BCE
Dateline: Sunday 4.7.1999 9:15 Location: SNCFT Tunis-Monastir Dir.Cl. 5-22/57
My first non-local trip outside Inter-Rail on this trip, and what do I do? Splurge on 1st class on a two-hour express to Sousse -- and fork out all of $6 for the privilege. (NB: This is less than a place reservation on most Eurotrains.) Although this "directe" express still seems to stop at most stations...? The train itself has also seen better days, stuffing squirting out of most seats and glass shards between the double windows, but the seat is comfy enough and the compartment is both half-empty and equipped with air conditioning. Effete luxury!
Now would be a good time to explain just what we were up to yesterday. First up we had the mundane task of getting Okuda-san a ticket to Rome. First quote: $1047 one-way. Whaaaat? Second try: $1035. OK, so how much to Palermo? $107. Puzzled glances all around, the ticket agent gets a sneaky suspicion: waitasec, you did mean Lomé, Togo, right? Err, no, we want Roma, Italy... which costs a much more tolerable $170. Except that tourists have to fork out an extra $50 for some peculiar reason...
Having completed this task we headed to the Bardo Museum, home to probably the world's best collection of Roman mosaics, where I got to explain simple concepts like "votive stelae" in Japanese. Personally, I found the Bardo's roof much nicer than the mosaics, but to each his own... By random chance we ran into Antoine for the 3rd time in two days... and the first Japanese person we'd seen since our arrival, a young female student of Arabic by the name of Ishigaki-san, who was on a solo trip through Egypt, Tunis, Jordan and Israel.
We joined forces and went to eat yet another amazing lunch (4 huge places, $3). We all took honeymelon (an immensely expensive delicacy in Japan) for dessert and I proceeded to carve mine up with a knife. Okuda-san and Ishigaki-san started at me in amazement. "Jani-san! You're very skilled at using a knife!" I stared back, blankly. "Huh?" Okuda-san explained: Japanese people are of course adept at using chopsticks, and the fork is seen frequently enough that using it presents no problems, but controlled motions with a dull eating knife -- like slicing a curve along the inside of the melon's skin -- are very difficult. As they proceeded to demonstrate.
So remember this the next time you're in Japan.
- Ooo, hashi no tsukaikata wa joozu desu nee!
(Ooh, you are very skilled at using chopsticks, aren't you?)
- Un. Demo kisama no naifu no tsukaikata wa heta n da sa! Bakayaroo!
(Yeah. But you suck at using a knife! Fucking idiot!)
Anyway. Next we headed to slog among the rather underwhelming ruins of Carthage (the Romans did a thorough job to the Carthaginians, but their own fate wasn't much better...) and the far more pleasant white-and-blue hilltop village of Sidi Bou Saïd, with a beautiful backdrop of the Mediterranean coast with sandy beach and palm trees... around sunset it was nice and cool with the wind blowing from the sea.
...and right now it's not nice and cool since the train's air-con seems to have broken down. Most people moved to another compartment (as one local girl explained before I even had a chance to ask), but as the inter-carriage doors are locked, I'd have to jump off and scurry into the next carriage during the train's next 10-second stop... too much of a hassle.
The central coastal region of Tunis is called the Sahel, and its flat landscape boasts exactly one dominant feature: olives. Planted in straight rows that stretch out as far as the eye can see in both directions, olives and tourists form the backbone of the Tunisian economy. Not to mention cuisine: the Tunisians put whole, unpitted olives into absolutely everything, including shwarma (döner kebab) sandwiches. Don't bite down too hard...
Dateline: Sunday 4.7.1999 16:10 Location: The Kasbah, Sousse, Tunisia
Yesterday I thought Carthage would be the last museum on this trip, but where do I end up? Sousse's kasbah-cum-museum, filled with yet more Roman mosaics, inscriptions, sculpture, etc -- and a Finnish tour group with a noisy guide explaining in gory detail how the Phoenicians sacrificed their firstborn children to Baal. A good story, no doubt, it's just a shame there's absolutely no archeological evidence to support it, other than a graveyard containing the cremated remains of children near Carthage. Anyway, the gently crumbling old kasbah is nice (& cool!), quite a few of the bigger relics are in the garden amidst the palm trees and bushes.
Unlike Tunis, the Sousse medina's commercial activities are largely limited to selling stuffed camels to tourists, but the off-the-beaten-track parts are a wild labyrinth of tiny white houses. The only (but sufficient) way to keep your bearings is by listening to the incessant din of the various mosques; another contrast to Tunis, where I don't recall hearing a single Allahu akbar and where the primary source of noise pollution was raï cassette merchants. I liked the Tunis medina better. Still, Sousse's saving grace is its proximity to the coast, which means that cool breezes waft through the streets and there's even a sandy beach nearby -- why, oh why, did some random hostelite in Malta have to filch my swimsuit? Here I'd have to pay an extortionate TD 20 for anything remotely wearable under a wetsuit.
The railroad connecting Tunis with Sfax runs straight through the center of Sousse. So? Read the statement again: it's literally true. No overpass, underpass, ramps or anything, the tracks of the Iron Horse are set in the pavement of Pl. Farhat Hached, and so the express trains mingle with the pedestrians, taxis, buses, horse carts... a bizarre sight.
I'm staying the night at Hôtel de Paris, a peculiarly named place on the edge of the medina. A small single (with a large bed!) cost TD13, quite a bit of inflation from Lonely Planet's TD8 -- evidently the Guidebook Uncertainty Principle ("the act of recording quality or price changes it, usually for the worse") is in force again. This may also explain why I seem to be the only guest in peak season at a place called "popular with travellers". GUP notwithstanding, the place is spotless (even the roaches are dead) and the sign's promise of Proprête ("Property"), Relaxation ("Relax") et Securité ("Safetyness") seems to be fulfilled.
Arab cities sound and look beautiful at night -- there's always a party somewhere, and local pop is a welcome change from usual omnipresent Western junk. The air is cool and, from up here on the 3rd floor, the view of the whitewashed city past the castle-like wall is surreal...
So far I had been lucky stomach-wise, despite breaking every rule in the book (drinking tap water [OK in Tunisia, but it tastes horrid!], eating fresh salads, buying street food...). I suspect the local antibacterial agent known as harissa, red chili paste which is not only used in sandwiches, but is also transmuted into the soups (chorba) and salads (mechouia) that inevitably precede the main meal... which, more often than not, has more harissa in the sauce. Not that I mind, it's good stuff. But the reason I wrote the first sentence in the past tense is that today I splurged 3 TD on half a kilo of of a delectable nuts-and-honey pie, and this finally proved too much -- my overextended stomach went on strike and (horrors) I've lost my appetite. Ah well, could have been worse...
I'm sufficiently bilingual that swapping between English and Finnish is effortless, and neither do I find concentrating on a single "weaker" language (like French or Japanese) difficult, but swapping between them is quite a task. On several occasions I had to interpret from French to Japanese, a truly befuddling task that always ended up with me speaking French to Okuda-san and Japanese to the poor Tunisian sales clerk. But during the 3 days I spent wandering around with Okuda-san, speaking little but Japanese, the language brushed off its cobwebs and reloaded itself in my brain -- with the result that I still hear Japanese everywhere around me, even though the people are really speaking something entirely different.
I'm starting to find Sousse's medina really annoying. Tunis' merchants generally behaved themselves, with most giving up after a single "Hello, friend!". Or variants thereof: Okuda-san got lots of Nî hâos (and not a few Konnichiwas), whereas I tend to get Guten Tags (plus the occasional Dobry den and, so far, a single Finnish Päivää here in Sousse -- damned Finnish package tourists!). But here, the usual sequence is "Hello. Hello! Hello!! HELLO???" and one carpet tout actually latched onto my arm and tried to physically drag me into his shop -- this is supposed to make me want to buy something? Yech. Remind me to steer clear of Moroccan tourist souqs...
Pop's La Victoire-- a café in Sousse
Dateline: Monday 5.7.1999 10:21 Location: Café Pop's La Victoire, Sousse, Tunisia
Ah, the wonders of state-run industry. At the post office it took close to ½ hour to buy two (2) standard stamps for sending postcards (although the sneer I got for mailing to Israel may not be unrelated). An even better example came back at the Tunis tourist office, staffed by a sprightly young lady and a corpulent old woman who had probably slouched in her chair in exact the same pose for 50 years. As the young girl was occupied, I asked the granny for a brochure of Carthage. The brochure stands were right behind her, but her only response was to bark out an order in Arabic -- at which the young girl got up, took the brochure from behind person B and handed it to me. How lazy can you get?
The beach here is sandy, immensely long (10+ km) and -- aah! -- windy and cool even during midday, but due to all that sand, snorkeling is pretty much pointless. I should've done more research beforehand... <pout> Ah well, at least I can give my suntan lotion a workout.
Yesterday I found a yin-yang mosaic at Sousse's archeological museum, today the trend continues as Sousse's great mosque (ca. 850 AD) turns out to be a Zen mosque: simple and austere in the Aghlabite style, no decoration whatsoever aside from a string of angular Arabic and curved arches. Even the prayer room is covered in a local version of tatami instead of the usual carpet. A surprisingly tranquil place despite its location in the middle of the city, and yet another example of religious convergence.
On a less serious note, some amusement is provided by tourists wandering around wrapped in green towels (to cover excessive sinful flesh), and one particularly clueless couple stomping around the off-limits prayer room wearing shoes and taking photos! I wouldn't try that in Iran.
Ooh, this is just too weird. I'm sitting in the Sousse train station's waiting room, watching a local soap opera. The current scene is in a trendy Tunisian night club, and the DJ is a moustached 40-something Arab in a suit, twisting and doing sliding with a studio mixer, grooving to the techno beat. The male star is stylishly dressed in jeans and a red-black plaid lumberjack flannel shirt. Now why didn't I go to a techno party here?
Trains from Tunis to Sousse cost 7.150, trains from Sousse to Tunis cost 6.850. Huh? And the aforementioned tourist office was kind enough to hand out winter timetables in summer, thankfully I only have to wait an extra hour and thus getting to the ferry on time won't be a problem.
Luxury: a bag hook on the toilet door.
Wisdom: bringing your own pack of toilet paper.
Heat: just sitting there...
Dateline: Monday 5.7.1999 20:38 Location: m/s Torres, Tirrenia Line, Tunis-Trapani
Now that was way too scary. The background: I arrived at the port about 1 hour and 15 minutes before departure. The door marked "Embarkation" was closed and there were plenty of people milling about, so I went to chat with a foreign (read: non-Tunisian) girl -- who turned out to be a Finn! She had just come on the same boat 1.5 hours ago, but the people who were supposed to meet her were nowhere to be seen, so I lent her my mobile and we talked for a while, with me scaring her with Tunis stories ("why, it was 43 degrees in the shade today!").
Eventually her date appears and I saunter off to ask what's going on... a customs officer answers: "Non! C'est fini! The boat leaves at 8!" (It's 20:07.) What to do? "Ask the police!" The police tells me to ask the guy I just asked, he tells me to find the shipping agent, the agency is closed but there's another one somewhere downstairs/outside, nobody quite knows where... after running up and down the stairs carrying my backpack I eventually wind up where I started -- and now, instead of dismissing me, the guy tells me to wait. It turns out there are two whole families with young puppy-eyed kids in the same predicament, so even Tunisian bureaucracy is forced to relent. An agency officer gives me a boarding card, another officer gives me a form to fill out, a border control guy stamps my passport, a customs guy pretends to check my bag -- and I get on board. Pheeeeeeee-eew. I wonder if even the magical "my dad is the ambassador" trick would've gotten me out of that pickle without those families... so shukran to them!
Moral of the story: sometimes it's best to believe that "passangers must check in at least one hour before departure" line on your ticket.
[Ed. Due to paranoia, this section was written after I was safely back in the EU.]
Tunisia is an interesting example of a democratic dictatorial police state. His Excellency, Head of the State, Protector of the People, etc President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was elected by popular vote -- 99%, in fact, which was not particularly surprising as he was the only candidate. The bizarre state-run newspaper La Presse sounds like a French-language version of KCNA, spouting out stuff like this:
Les participants à la conférence ont également exprimé leur total appui à la candidature du Président Zine El Abidine Ben Ali aux prochaines élections présidentielles, en signe de reconnaissance pour les réalisations accomplies par le Chef de l'Etat au profit de la Tunisie, réalisations qui, soulignent-ils, incitent à la fierté et galvanisent les volontés pour un surcroît de labeur et de dévouement sur la voie de la mise à niveau et de l'excellence. The participants in the conference also expressed their total support for the candidature of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali for the next presidential elections, as a sign of recognition for the achievements achieved by the Head of the State to the profit of Tunisia, achievements which, they emphasize, encourage the peoples' pride and galvanize the wills for labour and devotion on the way of development and excellence.
The foreign news is surprisingly good, but local news are limited to gushing over new post offices and arty literary critiques... nothing bad ever happens here! And you'll be arrested if you claim otherwise, as happened to Abderraouf Chammari just last week. [Ed. See Amnesty for the full story.] The state in its many forms ensures this: there are ordinary police, military police, army troops and the internal secret police, "La Surête". In Tunis uniformed goons with bayonet-equipped semi-automatics patrol the streets, with the help of steel-grid enclosed (and thus projectile-proof) vans and the remarkably ugly visage of Ben "check da weasel" Ali-Munster stares at you even in the cheapest casse-croûte joint. But hey! It's a democracy, so you can say and do anything you like, as long you don't oppose the government. Just like North Korea.