Retro – Tunisia: Tunis

My trip to Tunisia took place during March Break of 2009, WAY before the Arab Spring, when Ben Ali was still in charge of the country.  I had no Internet access back then, but did do a “video blog” of each day so I could come back and write about each place I visited.  Basically, I ended up writing some entries on the old Facebook notes, but ended up stopping short for who knows what reason.  Tunisia and Turkey do have a lot of similarities (Roman ruins, mosques, variable landscapes), so I figured some retro-posts here would make for good reading.  I guess that’s up to you all to decide.

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So the great thing so far about this trip is that I haven’t had any plane issues like the last three trips. No snowstorms like last March (Nice), no back injuries like Barcelona and no problems with the pilot’s chair like Vegas. I’m realizing right now that anybody reading this is thinking “Shut the hell up, Kirk, you’ve been on three vacations in the past year” and I’m garnering zero sympathy, so I’ll sum this paragraph up with “It was a nice flight!”

So I arrived at the airport tired and not thinking straight and THAT’S when I got had! The same guy who was practically elbowing “luggage handlers” in Kenya is approached by a friendly “cab driver” right outside of the airport while I’m walking to the front of the taxi line. Now, knowing that it’s a foreign country and I don’t want to get into somebody’s random car, I ask to see ID, make sure he knows where he’s going and make sure that the cab has a meter before he actually takes me to the cab. That all checked out so I’m thinking “Okay, this guy is legit” and he starts leading me to his cab… at the very end of the line… Hm. I should have clued in, but I was tired. We get to his cab and I hop in and the other cabs move to the side to let him through and we start chatting it up in French as I get all the tips from him on where to go in Tunis. Then I look down at the meter…

See, as somebody who researches before he goes someplace, I had heard that a cab from the airport to central Tunis should only cost you about 8 dinar. We were barely out of the airport and we were just about at 7 dinar. As we keep driving, I notice that the guy keeps “waving” his hand in front of the meter and the price keeps going up. All the time, he’s chatting me up and being very nice about the whole thing and when I mention that I didn’t know the price was going to be so high, he responds that it’s “traffic” (or “traffique”, I suppose), of which there was a lot. I was at a point where I was tired and not wanting to start and argument so I’m like “Fine, scam me, just take me to my hotel”.

So that’s exactly what he did and I ended up paying about triple the fare that I should have paid, but I figured why not get the bad experience out of the way right off of the bat. Dude was a scammer, but I don’t imagine he’s a Tunisian high roller and fate will sort him out eventually.

The hotel (Le Grand Hotel de France – most hotels in Tunis are named after other countries, like the Grand Hotel de Algerie, etc) is nice enough. Standard bathroom, shower, bed, nice little balcony that looks out onto a courtyard that might be real nice in the summer. The weather is off to a good start, sunny and about twentyish. Since it’s only about noon, I figure that I’m going to head off to see some of the sights and I ask the front desk if the Bardo Museum is hard to get to from the hotel. It’s not, just a tram ride and, with closures coming up due to Monday (everything is closed) and Tunisian Independence Day on Friday, this might be the only time I can do it so I find my way down to Place Barcelone and figure out which tram is Tram 4 (it had a big 4 on it) and make my way to the museum. On the way, there are two Tunisians who are obviously talking about me behind my back – nothing bad from what I could gather from some odd french/arabic combination – but they were definitely trying to figure out what some random white guy was doing on the Tunis metro when most tourists take tour buses or cabs. Finally, one of them speaks to me in English (because I guess I don’t look French) and says “The Bardo is the next stop” and I respond in French “Oui, je sais. Un apres Bab Jelouia (I think that was the stop, I can’t remember)” and he says “Oh, you know the Metro then” and I just tell him I have a map and give him an “Au Revoir”. 

On another note, gotta say that it was nice being able to get onto a crowded tram halfway across the world without being told to wait for the next one or forced to take a cab. Just feels more authentic that way and, in a place as safe as Tunisia, why the hell not?

The Bardo was absolutely amazing, right up there with the Hermitage in St. Petersberg in terms of proper use of a historical building to display historic art. Basically, all of the mosaics (and many of the sculptures) that were found in the major Roman sites of Tunis were taken down and brought to the Bardo to be displayed. The building itself is several hundred years old and used to serve as an Ottoman palace from the days where the Turks had a heavy stake in Tunisia. Just absolutely amazing.

I also discovered that, if you tell them you are an archeology student, the guides kind of ease off and don’t try to guide you in a tour which would probably result in a “Hey, I just led you around, give me a tip” sort of experience. Nice!
After the Bardo, it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick stop and then into the medina.
Absolutely huge, absolutely amazing and I think you could find just about anything you’d want in the place if you look long enough. As soon as I get to the courtyard of the Zaytouna (Great) Mosque, I’m approached by a guy in a red felt hat (checha, I believe) who tells me that there’s an amazing view from one of the rooftops and he can lead me there.
Immediately, I know I’m in for a hard sell at a carpet shop or something of the like, but I’m all about the view and can always say “No”, so I let him lead me through the medina and, sure enough, we enter a carpet shop and I get an awesome view of the city.
The hard sell, surprisingly, didn’t come at the carpet shop, but he led me back to his “brother’s” perfume shop, at which point he corners me, asks me to sit down and try some of the fragrances. I figure “Why not” and smell some stuff before telling him “Hey, I’m not really interested in perfume but here’s three dinar for the view”. He seemed a bit disappointed, but apparently they all put on the “Oh, I can’t believe you didn’t buy my product” act if you don’t actually buy something. So no big deal there.

I keep wandering the medina and end up exiting at the municipal square with city hall and the like (and about a hundred kids and teens playing soccer on a marbled courtyard – amazing) around it and wander up to Place Halfaounie, which was a really cool market district where actual Tunisians were buying actual products (and fish guts covered the lanes and had to be carefully avoided). Then, the adventure really began.

Being in the medina is like putting your head on a baseball bat like when you were a kid and spinning around, only when you get up and you’re dizzy nothing is in english any more and you don’t have any friends pointing you where to go. I enter the big gate at Halfaounie and figure that, if I go south long enough, I’ll reach the Great Mosque and know where to go from there. Yeah, not so much and I end up wandering for about twenty minutes through clothing souks (about ten minutes of that were through the souks with women’s clothing, which was interesting for nothing else but the looks) and through more produce and seafood souks before finally finding a gate that led out… to someplace I totally didn’t recognize. I managed to located some street signs and asked various vendors how I could find the bus station, because I wanted to buy my overnight ticket to Tataouine ahead of time in case there were crowds for that sort of thing tomorrow. After being led to the wrong station (gare), the one with trains instead of buses, and pointed in a few different directions in a city mostly devoid of streetlights, I finally ended up at Place Barcelone and talked to somebody who worked at the tram station, asking him what tram I needed to get to get to the bus station. This guy was CRAZY helpful and actually told me that I didn’t need to buy my ticket tonight, and that if I went in the morning to buy it I should be fine for a bus leaving the next night. Half of me still wanted to go and get the ticket just on principal, but it was about ten at night and I had been up for nearly fourty hours and thought “sleep time”. I wander back to the hotel, pick up a dirt cheap but delicious personal pizza (about two dollars for something that would cost you six in Canada), get back to the hotel.

Crazy half day, probably what most people would fit into a full day (but that’s me on the road sometime). Tunis is a crazy city and, in spite of the cab scam and the (totally expected) touts in the medina, people were pretty cool and helpful.  Amazing city in what looks to be an amazing country!

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