Tunisia is the next stop on our cruise and we’d arranged a private guide to take us to visit the historic sites. I have no desire to be locked into a carpet factory and showroom for 30 or 40 minutes whilst the operators try to entice you into purchasing a carpet or rug so I felt a private guide and driver was the best option. All group tours also included a visit to an American War Cemetery and, not being American, I preferred to bypass that as well. Perhaps if I were an American or had an ancestor buried in the cemetery there would have been a reason to visit.
Our choice of places to visit included the ancient ruins of Carthage, Punic Harbour, Byrsa Hill (Punic and Roman remains), Ancient Roman Baths, Sid Bou Said, drive to Tunis to wander through the Medina (market) and view the ancient Roman aqueduct. Probably more ancient history than Ty would like however, he’s lucky though, as I have now visited most places of the ancient world that I really wanted to see – Carthage was one of the last places on my list. My Ancient History teacher, Mr McGlynn, probably thought he failed to implant any knowledge of “happenings BC” in my grey matter when I was a student in his class all those years ago. Hmmm, some might say my school days could almost meet the criteria for ancient history! I’m sure my grandchildren think their Nan is an ancient relic….young children AND teenagers think anyone over 30 is ancient!!!
Tourism in Tunisia has been steadily growing with the cruise ships, and their passengers, calling into La Goulette greatly help the economy as tourism is its number one income….. The cruise liner, Noordam, was also in port at the same time as Splendida which meant the port area was quite busy with excursion buses, private tour mini buses and cars.
We had a little trouble finding our driver and guide, we were waiting at one parking area and Mr Radhi (our guide) was in another. The instructions given seemed clear enough on email but when we stepped out onto Tunisian soil they were not very clear at all. I had assumed we would walk out and find either across the road or to either side of us a person holding up a piece of cardboard with our name on it but no that wasn’t the case at all. There were several car parking areas containing many cars, minivans and buses across the road and up the road with men milling around. Perhaps they’re over there, we walked across the road…..no, no vehicle there with our name on a sign. Hmm, maybe they’re running late, we looked up the road, more men milling around but no signs with our name on it. I was becoming frustrated and a little annoyed because we were wasting precious time looking for someone who was supposed to be waiting for us!! We eventually found him (or so we thought) after Ty asked people standing around if they could point out Mr Rhadi (at least we had a name). One tour guide pointed us toward a little van and walking towards it we could see our name. The van was parked several metres inside a yard backing onto the cruise terminal entry about 50 metres up the road. Yes, we could find that no trouble at all…….and yes, you could be detecting a note of sarcasm here! Everything is right with the world again and our tour of Tunis and the historical sites is about to begin.
We stepped onto the bus and the driver, an elderly gentleman or perhaps middle aged and just aged by chain smoking, started talking to us in what I assume to be Arabic…I started to laugh as Ty said, “well, that’s great, are you sure we’re in the right van, he doesn’t speak or understand English”. “What have you booked?” I was amused by the look on his face. Poor Project Manager goes into panic mode if things don’t run to plan. Just as I replied “we have a guide as well” the driver jumped out of the bus and headed very quickly for the gate….we both laughed….perhaps we frightened him and he was running away! He had actually gone to find our guide who, it appears, had been waiting outside the gate with his sign….not sure where he was holding it but when we walked up to this gate there was not a sign in sight…lots of men talking but no signs. No matter, the driver and the guide returned and off we went.
First impressions of Tunisia: hot, dry, very dusty, rocky, and a little barren on the outskirts.
Our first stop was the Punic burial ground, quite amazing to see tombstones so well preserved, next was the ancient Roman Baths overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans certainly new how to choose the picturesque places to build. All part of what was once the ancient city of Carthage. These amazing ancient buildings, carvings and gravestones are extremely well looked after. The museum on the Carthage site holds a large number of fabulous artefacts from ancient times and is not overcrowded with pieces.
Road infrastructure in most developing countries is not the best and Tunisia was no different. Take the traffic on the F3/M1 motorway (the road we travel to /from work each day) or any major highway in most major cities in peak hour and triple it….all streets in the main area of Tunis (capital) were choked with cars. We sat in the traffic and occasionally crept along a centimetre at a time. The air conditioning wasn’t the best in the people carrier and when the windows were open we almost got blown away by the wind, the dust and the strange smells that permeated the air in certain areas. Couldn’t win either way but it was still an interesting place to be so as well as soaking up the unpleasant aspects I was soaking up the sights surrounding me.
Whilst we drove to Sin Bou Said Mr Radhi told us he is a university lecturer, as is the case with many teachers in the height of the tourist season in Europe when schools and universities are closed for holidays, they take on the role of tour guide. He explained that he normally worked 2 days a week and earned the equivalent of 350 euros a month. Tunisia has its own currency which you cannot purchase outside Tunisia nor take out of the country. Euro or US dollars are acceptable currency.
As he was talking I notice the road widens and becomes a dual carriageway. That surprised me given what I’ve seen so far. By the time I had the thought the dual carriageway ended! We were on the outskirts of Sin Bou Said, I knew that because the buildings were whitewashed with blue doors and shutters, similar to Santorini or Mykonos in Greek Islands and I had been listening intently to Mr Radhi! The scene started to look like a painting itself….very photogenic, to me anyway, as I can’t resist a totally blue and white scene and I couldn’t wait to see more. We stepped out of the car and proceeded to walk up a narrow cobblestone street crowded with cars, taxis, buses and pedestrians. About halfway up the street were shops and stalls run by men only.
A large bus was trying to manoeuvre its way down a narrow ‘street’ and a Mercedes driver (nowhere to be seen) had decided to park his car on the roadway. We watched as 5 men gave the bus driver instructions on which way to turn, how close he was to the car and shouting in unison when the bus was in danger of hitting the car.
Although, by the look of most cars we had seen in Tunisia, caring about damaging someone’s vehicle wasn’t a high priority as so many cars looked like they’d gone a couple of rounds with a boxer. We decided this manoeuvre was taking too long so we continued on our way. Anyway, we’d already witnessed a taxi driver beating up an already beaten up small car whilst he and the cars’ driver engaged in a heated discussion. We assumed one may have run up the back of the other.
We came to a group of shops and looked at the goods on sale. As with many of the stores in tourist areas in these countries they don’t put prices on items and are unwilling to give a price or straight answer when you ask and then try to charge an exorbitant amount for the goods. They expect you to bargain with them but there are times when you just don’t feel like back and forth bargaining so it tends to become annoying. I also think places such as Tunisia and parts of Turkey that I’ve visited would do well to start placing prices on the goods. Of course I’m probably unfairly putting all souk retailers in the same category as there may be many traders, I’m sure, who don’t do this…..I just haven’t found any so I tend to think they’re dishonest rather than the idea it’s all a game, especially when they start at 220 euros for goods worth 30 euros or less. We had decided on three items, in a store recommended by our guide, a cover to wear over my swimming costume, a small souvenir and Ty found a leather belt so the bargaining begins…the first price the souk trader gave us was 220 euros….we laughed and Ty said “don’t be ridiculous”. So on it went till eventually they agreed on 30 euros – which was probably still 10 euros too much.
There were many photo opportunities in this area where everyone who lives here is bound to keep the look uniform and can only whitewash their houses and have blue surrounds which, as I said before, makes a great view from a distance. However, once you’re standing among the buildings the sight that meets your eyes is not that beautiful, you see a big house or villa and beside it is a pile of rubble or rubbish and this scene was played out across all the areas we visited. Wellkept villas with bougainvillea, hibiscus and other flowering trees and shrubs colourfully surrounding the fences but piles of rubbish and building rubble beside the gate or at the end of the fence. No, it wasn’t sitting there waiting for garbage pick up unless it’s an annual service!!! No, this rubbish heap appeared to have been there for a number of years plus we saw locals just tossing rubbish onto the road or footpath. It struck us as odd that you would have the exterior walls and gardens of your home looking good but toss rubbish around it. How do you have cleanliness and pride in your home but outside your gate you seemingly don’t care, it’s as if they have the mentality that once the rubbish is outside my wall I’m not responsible for it. This phenomenon wasn’t isolated to just one area it was everywhere except some of the historical sites. A different way of living. There appears to be great pride in preserving the ancient sites in Carthage and that’s a great thing….perhaps they could introduce this sort of cleanliness to the wider community.
After our first foray into shopping in Tunisia we met our guide at the pre arranged place and he pointed out a few more things of interest, such as the reason there are shutters on the windows, I assumed it was to shade the rooms from the heat of the sun but Mr Radhi said it was because the women aren’t allowed to be seen at, or sitting, near the windows. I prefer my idea! We pushed our way through the masses of tourists as we followed our guide to where the driver was waiting. Our next stop would be Tunis and the Medina. We crossed the border, as Mr Radhi called it, whereas we were really just crossing from one suburb to another.
“Look at this traffic, it’s at a standstill” I said to Ty. I’m not sure if there were lanes or not because no one seemed to be travelling in any sort of order. Cars were going every which way even though police were on point duty…..well some sort of point duty. They weren’t helping and every so often they blew their whistle but no one moved…I don’t think they cared very much or they’d just given up, I would have. They probably had orders to blow their whistle at 15 minute intervals and they’d found the only shady spot anywhere on this road….under a flyover. Watching the cars and trucks jostling for position in the seeming mayhem was amusing. I just couldn’t imagine why you would choose to drive in this place it would be faster to walk everywhere. I can’t imagine anyone would ever get to work on time! Mr Radhi said the traffic was not really bad as many people are on holidays. If that’s the case I would definitely be walking everywhere.
As we inched our way into the capital, Tunis, the air conditioning in the van was giving up as well. The heat was becoming unbearable and I was contemplating forcing the driver to park us under a flyover as well. Ty managed to open the windows and the hot, dusty wind blew my hair everywhere..most of you know I hate being in any place or environment that’s windy and a car is one of the worst places if I don’t have a scarf. Precious you say? Maybe, I say it’s all about comfort – just don’t like being uncomfortable or with messy hair and for that reason I can’t purchase a convertible car…and I do love the look of convertibles!!
Joining another traffic jam we soon noticed a number of irate men raising fists out the windows of the cars and shouting animatedly. Unfortunately it became clear that a van had parked on the wrong side of the road to deliver some goods. Great, we had to be slowly melting in 60 degree heat whilst one motorist in particular was extremely upset with the van driver and a tirade of abuse between the two became heated to the point the van driver stepped out of his sandals and picked up a large, long chunk of timber and hurled it at the relatively new looking white sedan. Even though this was amusing it was also extremely uncomfortable watching this altercation escalate from the inside of a van without air-conditioning. The man in the little sedan stopped his car, after the pole hit the back of it, and ran at the van driver, he threw a punch at the van driver and knocked him down. As he walked back to his car the van driver grabbed a wrench and ran after the car driver. Luckily several men chased the van driver, grabbed him and held him to calm him down. Finally the traffic moved on….not a policeman to be seen!! That was our excitement for the day now onward to the Medina and perhaps a chance to get out of the extreme heat.
Reaching the centre of the city our driver pulled up and we had to alight from the van…we would now be on foot for the next hour looking at old buildings and walking through the Medina. Hmmm, not sure I like this, we had to keep ducking and weaving people as we tried to keep up with our guide on the street. It was crowded and no shade from the blazing sun…I was sure I’d melt…we had to be on our toes crossing the roads as well..when the cars get to move they move quickly and the drivers are reluctant to stop for pedestrians so it was stressful in the main square area. We also had to keep sight of our guide and be careful with our personal items….so much to think about when the heat had almost melted my brain and the I was wind blown!
Mr Radhi was waiting in the main square, I had to stop to take a photo of my surroundings, it was nothing like I’d seen before…the buildings were so old and you could see they had been ornate in an earlier life. “Kerin, come on, keep up” I heard Ty call out. As I turned I saw our guide heading away again, Ty continued ” You need to keep up we have to be careful here” I knew what he was referring to and how concerned he had been about visiting Tunisia when I had chosen this cruise so I put my camera away and followed our leader.
We managed to cross the road, without incident, to a very, very busy lane way leading into the Medina. Now, normally I love my shopping, especially in different countries but the shops were cluttered, the alley was tiny, about 3 feet (1 metre) wide between the shops on either side, and people were at least 6 across trying to shop, look or just walk through this section of the Medina…all alleys would have been the same. Oh, as well, merchants would be pushing through the crowd with their 2 wheeled trolleys. I found it to be claustrophobic and extremely hot. “Did I shop”? you ask. Unfortunately, not at all. We were carried along with the crush and our guide was weaving his way through ahead of us without so much as a look at the wares on offer. I couldn’t stop; the sea of people kept moving; it was like a flood picking up people like pieces of debris …..we had no choice but to move with it. In a way I’m glad of that because I didn’t feel like dealing with the bartering and the arrogant, sometimes overbearing attitude of the traders.
At the end of the alley we stopped to look at the exterior of a very old Mosque, “Thank goodness we can breathe some fresh air, well relatively fresh” I whispered to Ty, who said “Sorry, I didn’t hear you” ” Am I on your deaf side again?” “Yes” came the reply. Damn, I had to repeat myself! I’d hoped we would carry on walking past the Mosque in the outdoors even though the sun was blazing down on us, that was a better option than the airless alleyway of the Medina.
Mr Radhi asked if we wanted to shop “No” we both replied in unison. “I’m fine to go back now” I added, then he turned and headed back down the same crowded alley. My facial expression told Ty what my mind was thinking. By now our guide was way ahead of us and the number of people in the alley had increased. My thought was that everyone is on holiday and they’ve come to the Medina. Ty suggested I hold onto the backpack he was wearing and tuck in behind him….not the easiest thing to do with people cutting across the alley and pushing between us. About halfway through I felt like screaming, this was just insane and I couldn’t stand it any longer. I could hardly breathe and this was not an enjoyable experience…..perhaps I’ve lived on the central coast too long and become used to less crowded environments but I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t mind a crowd if I’m able to make my way to each shop and at least have a look at what they’re selling. I was quite prepared to purchase goodies in Tunisia so whilst I was looking forward to shopping the whole Medina crush left the Tunis traders less off ‘cos I went back to the ship with my euros. We spoke to people that had been to Tunis earlier in the year and they informed us it was very quiet and they wandered through without any crowds. So if you want to visit don’t go in July or August!!
I could now understand why, when suicide bombers set themselves off in these types of shopping places, so many innocent people are killed.
Tunisia is an interesting place, a place of contrasts with the preserved ancient areas being well cared for and clean against the populated areas and shopping districts appearing dirty, dusty and, in some parts, smelly. Tunisia is heavily dependent on the tourism trade and to get repeat visitors to to their shores I think they need to step up and clean the place up….apparently they have some beautiful five star resorts further along the coast which are becoming very popular. However, I imagine, although they may have fabulous views and white sand, they’ll be littered with rubbish as well. Hopefully this is not the case.
We returned to the ship happy that we had decided to employ a private guide, well worth the extra euros, and, even ignoring the Medina crush, we both agreed Tunisia had been a worthwhile experience. North African countries aren’t high on my list to visit……although I can never say ‘never’ because just when Ty thinks we won’t be going to some country again or some out of the way place I’ve booked a trip there!!! Poor man, I do feel for him as I’m sure you do, but life is never dull and I’ve given him lots of opportunity to choose somewhere he would like to go……he’s still thinking!!!