Retro – Tunisia: Tunis to Tataouine to Gabes

This is a meaty post.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you know all about Tataouine.   Or, as it is more fantastically spelled, Tatooine.  Home of Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, C-3P0, and a major part of the Star Wars mythos, it’s one of those places that actually exists.  We’re going to get to the Tatooine from the good trilogy in the next post.  The stuff in this post, though, is definitely the more visually stunning.

But first, OVERNIGHT BUS!

One of the downsides of travelling during March Break is that you have to find time whenever you can in order to see the things you really want to see.  Though Tunisia is a small enough country, Tataouine is still a good 500 km due South from Tunis and, best I could discover, there was no “express bus” between the two.  So taking the bus during the day would effectively eliminate a whole day worth of sights, which I wasn’t having.  So, night bus!

I had picked up my ticket for Tataouine the morning of my trip to Carthage and made my way down to the bus station for the 11 pm bus.  The bus station itself was a bit of an experience, with traditional North African music blaring for a variety of sources in the parking lot as various vendors sold their wares, which included about fifty thousand varieties of pastries and sweets.  Okay, maybe not that many, but a significant amount, all of which looked delicious.  Finding my bus was a bit of an adventure, since things weren’t leaving exactly on time, there was no visible schedule board that gave destinations, and everything was in Arabic, which kind of looks like reverse cursive.  So while, in many places in the world, a bus would arrive ten or fifteen minutes before it was supposed to depart, giving you time to get on and get settled in, the ones at the station seemed drive in and out as fast as possible, leaving me at the platform hoping I would catch the right one.

Well, after pretty much committing the Tataouine scribble to memory and fifteen minutes later than I was supposed to leave, the Tatouine bus pulled up to the station.  It was a mad rush to get on, as I’m not sure if if they oversold the bus, but there were a significant number of people left behind, some of which looked like they had tickets in their hands.  Either way, me and my “carry-on” found my seat and I was good to go.

Night buses are a mixed bag for me.  On the one hand, they save time and money as you can, supposedly, go to sleep and wake up in another location.  However, your ability to get to sleep is completely dependent upon a whole host of factors, from road conditions to seat condition to the passengers on the bus.  My sleep ended up being a series of naps for a couple of reasons.

1) Cold. 
The bus wasn’t terribly well insulated and, driving through a desert at night, it got darn cold on the inside.  Like windows frosting up type cold.  I had my hoodie and long pants on, but it wasn’t enough to sleep comfortably.

2) Seat. 
Not sure how these things were made, and I recognize that I’m probably about fifty pounds heavier than the average Tunisian, but somehow the seat dug into the right side of my butt the whole way down.  As much as I tried moving around, leg got a bit numb.

3) “Hey You”
A few seats behind me, there was a guy who seemed pretty drunk (or just obnoxious) who kept saying “Hey you.”  Now, being the only non-local on the bus, I started making the assumption that this guy was trying to talk to me.  A sort of “Hey, look at me talking to the tourist on local transit” type thing.  However, once I started looking back (bus was dark, so it took a few times), I figured out he was talking on a cell phone and “Hey you” was how he was answering the phone.  Not sure what it translated to exactly (or if I was even right in my assumption), but it solved that mystery.

What it DIDN’T solve was the guy being loud, annoying and obnoxious, and he soon began to incur the wrath of a few passengers, including one spunky older lady.  The bus pulls over to the side of the road, the bus driver walks down the aisle and starts talking to the guy, who dismisses him.

The driver then loses it, starts yelling in Arabic and “Hey you”, realizing he was in trouble, clams right up and starts apologizing.  The driver continues yelling at him before going back to his seat, driving another five minutes before stopping at a rest-stop/pick-up point, where everybody gets off the bus for a few minutes to walk around.

Once I get off the bus, the guy who was sitting next to me comes over and starts talking to me.  Basically, combining both of our French as a Second Language powers, I was able to figure out that, yes, “Hey you” was drunk, that’s how he was answering his phone and the bus driver threatened to either kick him off the bus or stop driving entirely if he didn’t shut up, and then threatened to have the police waiting for this guy at one of the stops.  Which is why he shut up.  Good to know the local language, sometimes.

Ended up having some basic chit-chat with the guy before getting back on the bus.  He mentioned a few sights I was already going to and a few that I knew about but couldn’t make it to, we talked a bit about Canada, and he seemed like an overall friendly guy.  Once we got back on the bus, though, it was lights out time and I actually managed to get something like three hours of relatively uninterrupted sleep.  Which was nice.

At a little before six in the morning, we rolling into the Tataouine bus station, which is small.  Like, really, really small.  A couple of places for buses to go, a receiving room and a snack counter.  Small.  Also, literally, the end of the line, as there isn’t too much south of Tataouine.

I pull out my Lonely Planet to get the lay of the land and suddenly I hear “Excuse me, do you speak English?”  Behind me are a German couple who, unbeknownst to me, were on the same bus (they slept through the rest stop) and, after fumbling around to see if English or French would serve us better (English was the way to go), we headed into town to find our hostel.

The plan was to drop our stuff and then find ourselves a driver.  I had already phoned in a reservation at the Hotel Residence Hamza and had informed the owner that I would be arriving at 6 am, but we ended up being there about a half-hour early, so there was some standing around in what, at first, looked like a run down part of town.  Upon later exploration, it turns out most of Tataouine looks that way, so what are you going to do?  Once the owner finally arrived, we checked in, threw our stuff upstairs and were off to find a driver for the day.

The big draw in the Tataouine area are the small villages and the ksour, which are old, fortified granaries used by the various Berber tribes to protect their grain crops.  As much as Tataouine is used to tourists, there is no real do-it-yourself circuit or loop, as each major village or site is a few kilometers away from the other and none of the big ones are near the town centre.  So, a driver is key.  When you’re three foreigners walking into “downtown” Tataouine, people tend to figure out pretty quickly what you’re looking for.  We’re approached by a local who tells us he’s the “dispatch” for the taxicabs.  He asks us what route we’re looking to take, which sites we want to see, and what we’re looking to spend.  He ends up doing the haggling for us with several taxi drivers (the cabs are all lined up on the street in a row) before we settle on 60 dinar for six sights, which would take us most of the day.  60 dinar per person. 

Now, the Lonely Planet had said rates would vary “wildly” from 30 to 60 dinar and, when I tried to haggle, sites came off the list.  I had budgeted 60 dinar for myself, but had also figured that would be the cost per car.  I didn’t mention this to the Germans and it ended up being a good thing, since pretty much every conversation they had involved staying within their budget.  ANY time money came up, there was humming and hawing and concern.  I totally get staying within a budget, but at a certain point, spend the money.  Of course, maybe that mentality is probably why Germany is the… Germany of the European Union, so who am I to knock success?  The Germans asked me if I thought it was a good deal and, wanting to get going and knowing that having $120 dinar removed from the car probably screws me over for the rest of the day, I say yes and we’re on our way.

Our agreed itinerary included the village of Ghomrassen, Ksar Hedada, which is our Phantom Menace site, the hilltop villages of Guermessa and Chenini, and the massive Ksour Ouled Soltane and Ezzahra.  Ghomrassen was pretty basic, as we got to check out an old ksar near the bottom and saw the ruins of the old village at the top of the hill.  There was plenty to explore just in the town itself, but considering what we had ahead of us, a twenty minute stop seemed like enough for the day. 

Ksar Hedada was what I would consider our first “big” stop of the day.  The place used to be a functional hotel, and a pretty nice one in spite of not really being too close to anything.  The site was used as Anakin Skywalker’s home, his slave quarters, in “The Phantom Menace”.  We were all pretty excited to get inside and have a look around but, when we got to the main door…. closed. 

Not wanting to be stopped at the door, we started wandering the walls of the ksar, looking for any views we could get in.  There were a couple of areas where you could stand on things and practically climb in, and the thought did occur to us, though none of us knew how exactly we would get out if we did make our way inside.  Then, just as we’re peering over the side to get a better view, we hear frantic yelling and screaming coming from far away and we see a guy start running towards us.  The screaming was in Arabic, so none of us really knew what was going on but, as the man got closer, I saw a big smile on his face and we figured out that this guy was the site caretaker.  He actually apologized for the site not being open and let us inside. 

Even though it hadn’t been used for years, the site still looks great and you could almost picture computer generated aliens wandering through the street.  It isn’t the biggest ksar in the area, but it was still really cool to wander around, with sandy little laneways and some pleasant courtyards sprinkled throughout.  As the first “big” site of the day, it was a pretty darn good one.

After having a stroll, we got back in the taxi and made our way to the base of Guermessa.  Our cab driver explained that he would get as close as he could, but it would be difficult to make it up to the top without four-wheel drive and that we would get a good look at a different hilltop village once we made our way to the next stop.  Still, it was the three of us and the driver, standing in a rocky desert, at the base of an abandoned Berber village.  The whole experience was pretty otherworldly and, while having a 4 x 4 to get to the top would have produced some stunning views, our driver was correct in saying that there would be more of those to come.

Chenini is supposedly abandoned, but there were still a few Berbers living in and around the ruins.  There are plenty of twists and turns around the various hills to get there, but once you get a view of the actual village, it’s totally worth the somewhat wild ride.  The people who live there will definitely recognize why you’re visiting, and a variety of kids and adults will offer to tour you around the ruins for some great views, or to invite you into their home to see how they live.  Basically, you’re looking and carved-in-rock rooms with a bed and a small cooking area for most of the inhabitants.  A nice old Berber lady invited us into her place for one dinar and, even though Germans weren’t too hyped on the idea (budget), I took the chance.  It’s a dinar, so why the heck not?

Once you get to the top of the village, you are blessed with some great views of the desert, including some views that seem to have been set up by the locals – a variety of old storage jars that just happened to be left by a ridge that happened to be left by somebody’s house.  The mosque is worth mentioning as well – the desert mosques don’t tend to be too decorative, but they just spring up as solid white buildings amongst the brown, providing a pretty fantastic visual contrast.  If we were blessed with blue skies instead of grey rainclouds, it would have been near picture perfect. 

As we got into our taxi, the driver asked if we wanted to go to Douriet as well, another Berber village, although this one is completely abandoned and not terribly frequented by tourists.  It would have cost an extra 10 dinar a person and tacked maybe an hour onto the whole experience.  I was up for it but the Germans had their budget, so Douriet would remain untouristed for the day.  It was alright, though, because the next two stops were our visual heavyweights.

First was Ksar Ouled Soltane, another “slave quarters” site used in the Phantom Menace.  While Hedada was neat to look at, Ouled Soltane was just MASSIVE, as some of the grain rooms were four stories above the ground, bigger than some of the buildings I saw in Tataouine.  What made it extra neat is that you could climb the various steps, go in and out of open grain rooms and basically explore the place with nobody else there.  Apart from some guys running the cafe, the place was empty.  No tour buses or other enterprising tourists in sight.  The trend continued for Ksar Ezzehra, which didn’t even have a cafe.  The sky was turning blue, the weather was getting warmer and it made for a real photogenic end to a beautiful day.

We start rolling back into town and the driver offers up another site which the Germans (rudely, this time) turn down.  Considering the massive loop we had just made that day, I don’t think this was a case of nickel and diming, but these two wanted to stick with their original agreement, no deviations from the budget, thank you very much.  At this point, it was about midday and I started wondering what else Tataouine had to offer.  I had my room at the hostel booked, but I also realized that, if I made it out of town on a louage that afternoon, I could make it to my next location and end up fitting in some extra stuff for the end of the trip.  So I decided I’d take a stroll around the town to see what it offered.

Apparently, it once offered something to Celine Dion, because I found this on the side of a building.

Celine is holding a bowl of “Gazelle Horns”, a local pastry filled with chopped nuts and dipped in honey.  I did some research and, no, Celine has never been to Tataouine or, as far as I can tell, Tunisia, though there are a few online petitions asking her to visit.  I’ve never once bought local pastry based upon the endorsement of a French Canadian musical megastar, but this seemed like as good a time as any.  They were delicious and, Celine, if you’re reading this (and why wouldn’t you be), bring the gift of music to Tunisia by having a street concert in Tataouine with this as your backdrop.  It’s the right thing to do.

Anyway, that was literally the only picture I took in Tataouine proper.  There wasn’t really anything else to see in town so I made the decision to move on to Gabes.  I went back to the hostel, stopped by the Germans’ room and had a very uncomfortable conversation with the guy, who didn’t see the need to put pants on over his black bikini briefs when answering the door (his girlfriend was fully clothed and reading, so I wasn’t walking in on anything) and told them I’d be moving on.  I checked out at reception who, pleasantly enough, only charged me for a half-day, and made my way to the louage station to get to Gabes.  Three hours later, I was in a different city, on my way to a hotel.

Problem 1: By the time I got to Gabes, it was pretty dark.

Problem 2: Though the streets in Gabes do have names, those names aren’t on the actual streets. 

So, I was basically walking blind to a hotel which my map told me was about 2 kilometres away from the louage station, in a town that didn’t really have any major landmarks.  In the dark.  With no streetlights.  And a Lonely Planet map.

I start wandering in what looks like the right direction, knowing I can cover 2k in about 20 minutes.  20 minutes later, I have absolutely no clue where I am so I duck into what looks like an open store and ask for some directions.  The guy speaks limited French, but tells me I’m pretty much going the right way, so I head back to the street and start walking.  A few minutes later, a pair of guys start wandering behind me and begin speaking in lowered voices.  Hearing enough to know they were talking about “the tourist”, I turn around and say “Bonjour”, which surprised them both.  In a completely unsolicited move, the one guy starts talking about how hard it is to be gay in Tunisia and how people don’t respect him and how his family has disowned him, etc, etc.  I tell him that’s unfortunate and then ask what direction the Hotel Rahma is in.  He says it’s right down the road I’m walking on, and then he asks if I have a reservation, saying it’s usually full.

Note to anybody who ever travels.  If a random on the street tells you a hotel is full, it’s not.  They’re trying to get you someplace else. 

I tell him that I do have a reservation, but then he asks why I would want to go there, as the area is filled with criminals and prostitutes.  This pretty much entirely contradicts Lonely Planet calling it the “best choice in Gabes”, which is what I tell the guy, who then tells me “Well, maybe they paid the book…”  Sure thing.

The guy then asks if I want to go out for a drink before I get to the hotel, which I politely refuse, as it’s becoming more and more obvious that my new “friend” is pretty shady.  I see the sign to the hotel, point it out and say “Bon nuit” and walk away from a weird experience.

Now, knowing what I know about Tunisia, I never felt like I was in any danger.  I did feel like something was up and managed to keep my wits about me, so in the end, it all turned out okay.  I went into the lobby of the hotel, which was free of criminals and prostitutes, told the guy at reception that I was here a day early and asked if there were any extra rooms (there were) and was brought upstairs to a nice room with a comfortable bed an a TV.  No prostitutes, though.  Quick shower, crash into bed, done for the night.

Gabes is going to be the base to the next Star Wars location, but more on that in the next post.  This was an insanely full day, one of the biggest and weirdest I ever had while travelling.  Every day in Tunisia is a full one, that’s for darn sure.

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