Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Time-Traveling in Tunisia -- Pt. 1

 Just one of many jarring encounters. I read the menu outside and didn't see a single taco or burrito mentioned.

When a flight starts with stairs being rolled up to the back exit of a plane so the police can board and remove a man arguing loudly in a language you don’t understand and ends with the plane bouncing down the runway as someone sounding suspiciously like a flight attendant exclaims “Hamdoulah!” (Thanks to God), well then, you know that you’re about to experience something new. You’ve left the straight up and down world of American/European culture and entered a world as different and mesmerizing as the narrow streets of the medinas that define North Africa.

In December, my husband Brad had a math conference in Tunisia. This would be the first time I joined him because, among other stupid reasons, I was a bit afraid I couldn’t survive on my own in such a foreign country while Brad was doing his math thing. Traveling in Europe, even if I don’t speak the language, is no problem. I see much of my world in theirs. North Africa, though? Language, food, habits, everything would be different, I thought. What if I accidentally offended someone? I wouldn’t be up to it. So I had to conquer my silly fears and head to Tunisia finally.

While the trip only lasted five days, I have more to talk about than can be contained in a single blog post. Since this country is probably not on the radar for most of you, let me bring you up to speed.

Tunisia is a small (tiny) piece of land along the Mediterranean Sea wedged between Algeria and Libya. Population is a little over 10 million, most of the people living in the capital of Tunis or along the east coast. It has verdant farmland as rich as Missouri’s bottomland, rocky mountains providing building materials for Roman ruins, and the Sahara. An educated country, even your porter at the hotel can speak Arabic, French, and one other language. While 98% of the people are Muslims, the modern government has been secular, perhaps because of its position as a French colony until they gained their independence in the 1950s.  And if the word “Tunisia” rings a bell, it might be because this country was the site of the Jasmine Revolution that began what we now call the “Arab Spring.” The people we met, however, didn’t want to be connected to the Arab Spring because their revolution is more or less over and done with. They’ve had a change in government, they voted on a new constitution, they work hard to convince the tourists to return to their resorts along their gleaming beaches -- Inshallah (Allah willing).

Our driver sped down the highway toward our resort community of Yasmine-Hammamet with the full moon blinding us through one window and billboards of Cameron Diaz selling watches, Jennifer Lopez selling shampoo, and George Clooney selling coffee makers whizzing past the other. And Coca-Cola. Always Coca-Cola. It has to be the most universal brand, the taste around which feuding nations rally. Is there a country that doesn’t sell those red cans?

As we left the lights of the historic city of Tunis (ancient Carthage) behind and my eyes adjusted to the dark, I squinted and tried to get a sense of this country. About all I was sure of was that the lines in the highway were mere suggestions for where cars could drive. Things I saw along the highway were so unfamiliar at times that I was suspected they were mirages.

A short list of what I think I saw in the dark:
-- a lot of cars and trucks pulled over by police (that many lawbreakers? that vigilant a speed trap? or something else?)
-- huge convoys of trucks just sitting on the side of the highway; I think our driver said that’s just where they stop and sleep for the night
-- grapes-of-wrath style flatbed trucks with hay or vegetables piled as high as a 2-story house, held by a single rope
-- a man pushing a bicycle along the shoulder with belongings stacked higher than his head. Was that a goat walking beside him?
-- on second thought, that was a donkey, not a bicycle
-- French road signs and French toll booths; Tunisia may have thrown off the shackles of colonialism, but why fix what ain’t broke
-- me, in a car, under the brightest moon of my life, driving through North Africa

Come back soon for more stories of my time in Tunisia. Meanwhile, tell us in the comments box where have you visited that you felt the most out of place. Or, what was the most exotic place you’ve visited and why did you go?

Camels were absolutely everywhere. Unfortunately on this trip I didn't have the chance to get close to one.


Nadine Feldman said...

This sounds so interesting! I can't wait to read more about your adventures.

Easily, I felt most out of place in Israel. Many signs were written in several languages, none of which were English. One day I found myself walking down an Arab street and realized I'd forgotten my hat, so I felt almost naked even though I was dressed in a long skirt.

We like to travel on our own, without a tour, so we were often in situations that were interesting, confusing, and downright scary at times. Stressful though it was, it was an amazing trip, and I'm glad we did it!

Annette Gendler said...

In North Africa, I've "only" been to Morocco, but it was a beautiful trip. Tunisia is really a tourist destination for Europeans, so it doesn't feel that exotic to me, nor did Morocco. I figure sub-Saharan Africa would feel more exotic.

Lee I said...

Many years ago, my husband and I went on a motorcycle tour which included Yugoslavia. Most of us traveled on our own from stop to stop. There were unfamiliar letters in the alphabet and incomprehensible traffic signs. That's when we felt the most lost, especially about 30 miles on a dirt road through the forest. Now I find that there were probably more than one language involved.

Julie Farrar said...

Annette, you're jumping ahead of me because I'm definitely going to talk about living in the tourist bubble. However, one day we got out of that and did reach the part of the country not fashioned for the tourists. I'll write about that later.

Nadine and Lee, I'm on the fence still about traveling without a guide in a country where there would be zero signs I can read. There are still so many places to see where I'd actually know whether to turn left or right. But I haven't ruled it out.

Scoop (Leslie Scoopmire) said...

One of my dear friends in college at the University of Tulsa was an older lady who was very very chic and from Tunisia. She had had some tragedy in her life (daughter and husband killed in a car accident in front of her eyes) but she was a beautiful person with a beautiful soul.

It sounds like you had a fabulous trip-- although we certainly miss you when you are gone! I would love to go there some day-- and definitely go back to France, but with Bill.

By the way, I love Le Chat Noir on your header.

Muriel said...

ell, it sounds like you had a great time! I love Mediterranean countries. The most magical place for me that Istanbul, where Europe & Asia meet.I have very fond memories of the Bosphorus.

Vagabonde said...

I am pleased you are enjoying Tunisia. I have been there four times I think (twice by myself) – once to the island of Djerba for a week, which is close to the Lybian border, and the rest of the time to Tunis and neighboring towns. I found Algeria to be wilder (including the people) where I went 3 times and Morocco (twice.) In Africa I liked Gabon and Ethiopia more (not including Egypt where I have family.) I am not sure which country I felt the most out of place, maybe in Yogyakarta in Indonesia, but also in Luang-Prabang in Laos, or rather Tashkent in Uzbekistan – yes, I think Tashkent. But I have traveled to so many countries alone that I really don’t feel out of place - or very little. Once in a small town in Koh-Samui (an island in southern Thailand) I was so afraid to drive I returned the rented car after one kilometer, or another time arguing with some kids in Senegal who wanted money or teenagers in Odessa, Ukraine. I started traveling when I was 6 when we went to get my grandma in Istanbul and I am a senior now – so have been able to go on many trips. People in Tunisia and Morocco are very friendly – don’t be afraid to always offer half the price they ask for anything.

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