Tunisia

25th April 2009



No matter how much fun you had in a country, there is something exciting about crossing the border into the next one. I was in a tremendous mood bombing down the road to Tozeur from the frontier, with the windows down, shouting along to 'Mahboubit Galbi' on the radio.

The first thing I noticed was the buttock-clenching cold. The minute I crossed the border, the weather clicked its heels and dropped ten degrees. I had been looking forward to sunbathing on a northern beach looking out over the cresting waves towards Italy. Not a chance.

The second thing was the number of pretty girls, all dressed up to the nines in western clothing. I have to say it made a pleasant change from Algeria where women are almost never seen.

Tunisia feels small and busy after the vast, empty expanses of Algeria. It has a much more mediterranean feel, with rows of orange trees along the main streets of the towns and surprising changes of landscape in the space of a few kilometres.

Tunisia is like a continent in miniature, with little crescent beaches, a sandbox version of the Sahara, a mini tropical archipelago and even a tiny Alpine mountain range, complete with one ski slope and veiled Heidis herding cows.


Some Numbers
33 days total
17 nights in Tunis
2 nights on the roof of the car
2 nights on the ground in the desert
7 - number of days they said it would take to get my Libyan visa
29 - number of days it took to get my Libyan visa
1000 - number of times I wanted to murder a Libyan


Tunis
It's amazing how quickly you get settled in a place. After 10 days, I was greeting the local waiters by name, high-fiving souvenir-sellers after a sale and looking down my nose at the "bloody tourists". You quickly put youtself in a different category.

Incidentally, I have often wondered who actually buys the kind of tat you see on sale everywhere: tiny replica shoes, porcelain guitars etc. After careful observation, I can tell you categorically - it's the Germans. I saw one teutonic genius buy a five foot tall plastic camel. It surely won't fit in his hand luggage. Is he seriously going to ship a plastic camel back to Germany?


The Libyan Visa Fiasco
My only unhappy memories in Tunisia were of the Libyan Consulate in Tunis. By the time I left clutching my illegible, coffe-stained visa, muttering curses and maledictions, I would gladly have bombed their country back to the stone age. That is, if it wasn't already there.

During one of the innumerable tedious afternoons I spent in the consulate waiting room, I drafted a note to the Lybian ambassador in London:

Dear "Ambassador",

I feel it is my duty to bring to your notice the shameful condition of your visa department in Tunis. The noseless trolls that work there are unable to read or count, and conduct all of their interactions with foreigners by jabbing them in the chest with a forefinger and shouting in Arabic.

I tried explaining my situation extremely slowly, in read-my-lips fashion, but was unable to penetrate the wall of dead-eyed incompetence. I see that your country has masterfully combined the efficiency of your erstwhile colonial masters, the Italians, with the charm that you learnt from the Germans when Rommel was there.

I realise that stamping a piece of paper is a tough assignment, but the situation could easily be resolved by replacing the current team of fifty monoglot Libyans with a single Tunisian who speaks fluent French and has basic interpersonal skills.

I demand that action be taken forthwith, Sir, or you will feel the sting of the lash across your worthless shoulders.

Your faithful servant etc



Hunting in Haouaria
A vindication of my policy of picking up hitch-hikers. I gave a young guy called Salem a ride near Haouaria, we got chatting, and I ended up spending two days with him and his friend Tahar hunting hawks in the hills of Cap Bon.

This is a tradition that is unique to this small town and dates back 1000 years. In March and April they catch the hawks, which are migrating from northern Europe, train them for a month, and then use them to hunt partriges. They catch them by tying two small birds to a stick as bait, waiting in a hide and then throwing a net over the hawk when it attacks. In July, they have a big festival and release the birds to continue their migration.

This was one of the most fun experiences I've had on the trip. They were an absolute comedy duo, with Salem challenging me to beach volleyball and Tahar lumbering around singing Britney Spears. Tahar, known to his friends as Taher (which means "circumciser of young boys") is one of those big, genial farmer types, who laughs good naturedly when you rib him, but could snap you in half like a kit-kat.

In the evening, all the hunters repair to a coffeshop in town with their hawks. This desensitizes the birds to noise and people, which is important for their training. It's an amazing sight – 50 guys drinking coffee, each with a hawk perched on his head, shoulder or knee. The hunters were a bit subdued the first night. Apparently, a French documentary team had been in Haouaria the week before to film the hunting, which had caused great excitement. Unfortunately, when they got back to France and reviewed the footage, the swearing and profanity from the hunters was so bad that they had to cut all the dialogue and just have music play over it. This caused a bit of a local scandal, and the mayor had given them a public dressing down, calling them "a disgrace to the town". In the way of such things, everyone was laughing about it a couple of days later.



Btw - Tahar asked me to help him find an English wife, so let me know if there is any interest. He is the recumbant Adonis at the bottom.


Travelling Alone
When travelling solo, you often eat in restaurants by yourself. I no longer feel the slightest bit uncomfortable doing it. The key is to exude an air of intense contemplation to let others know that you are a very intelligent person. Or just ignore them and read a book.

Getting locals to take photos is a waste of time, even if you set everything up so they just have to point and click. I have mastered the art of setting the autotimer, sprinting round the front, then looking as nonchalant at possible.

Staying at youth hostels is a good way to meet interesting people. Of couse hostels are infested with well-meaning sandal wearers who smell like a dog blanket and corner you into hearing their adolescent politicaI views, usually a blend of Michael Moore and an ecological stance gleaned from the back of Body Shop shampoo bottles. Overall I find them less annoying than people I worked with in the city who say things like 'I work hard but I also play hard'. And it's worth it for the random encounters - I had a night out in Tunis with a Canadian bear hunter and a French street psychiatrist . The latter gets paid by the state to bycicle round Mareseilles, treating insane homeless people.

Dorms don't bother me. After ten years of boarding school I am immune to snoring and bad guitar.


WTH?
Thankfully, it seems that Tunisians do not subscribe to the 'rule of tens'. I had feared this was a universal Arab phenomenon. Algerian men all think that there are 10 women for every man on earth. Seriously. It came up when I asked a taxi driver: 'if some men have four wives, what about the fact that there aren't enough women left for everyone else?'. That was his answer. I asked another 15-odd Algerians. All the answers were between seven and ten. I have argued until I'm blue in the face on this topic. It's some kind of ingrained meme in the national psyche.


Tourism
The difference in the tourist experience between Tunisia and Algeria is staggering. Here, you are politely waved through police checkpoints, and requests for toilet paper and hot water are not met with a bemused laugh. It's almost like being in a different country.

They're trying, but the Algerians have a long way to go before they get it as far as tourism goes. On the last night, we were stopped at 6pm by the military, who told me that it is too dangerous for foreigners to travel at night. "You will have to stay here," they said. Here? The side of the road. No food or water, and one sleeping bag for me and my 65 year old guide. I'm not ashamed to say I took it. The old codger is absolutely hard as nails. He didn't bat an eyelid, just curled up on the tarmac with a shoe under his head.

Tunisia is a coutry that welcomes huge numbers of visitors every year - 7 million – but you don't see them. They all arrive in the space of two months in the summer and sit on the beach at Hammamet or Jerba. Some choose to take a 'cultural tour', which means zipping round the country in a coach and jumping out every few hours for a visit to a mosque. They form a protective square against the street-hawkers, with the women in the middle, and rush round the site for ten minutes in an insect clicking of cameras and a blur of inappropriate clothing. I have no problem with this - it keeps them all together and allows proper travellers, like myself, to make snide remarks from a coffee shop across the street.


Vehicle Update
After 6 weeks of driving ultra-carefully round North African cities, the locals have been busy bashing up the car. First up was a mechanic who reversed into a bollard. Apparently he's not used to the wheel on the right. Good work.

Then I went to get the car washed and they snapped off the electric aerial. "Never mind", says the boss, "Just get it replaced and we'll give you the money". So I go to the Toyota garage and get a quote – 200 quid. Jesus. I went back and it turned out that the guy who did the damage would have to take the full hit. Man, you should have seen the old boy's face when the boss told him the bill. He was absolutely green. Probably about a month's wages for him.

I let him dangle for a bit before letting him off. To say he was relieved is an understatement. He was positively hopping up and down with delight. Couldn't stop grinning. Everyone was clapping me on the back and offering me their sandwiches. It felt like I was some kind of modern day Robin Hood, whereas in fact I'd only agreed not to push a 70 year-old man into total destitution. Weird feeling. The damn aerial is stuck on with super-glue now.


Camera update
More collateral damage. A young chap comes running along the pavement, turns to look at a group of schoolgirls, and goes full tilt into me. The camera goes flying and smacks into a wall. Crap. He picks it up and starts blowing on it and polishing it with a rag he's got in his pocket. Nice move. It is a sad fact that the delicate insides of a £1000 camera can't be fixed by someone wiping the casing with a rag. Bottom line, my wide-angle lens is screwed and there is no way to fix or replace it until Turkey. Just the zoom left. These things happen, just expect a lot of worthy shots of old men and children. No landscapes.


Jiu-Jitsu
Finally an opportunity to pursue my favourite sport – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I had great fun at the Sousse Academy of BJJ. I explained on the phone that I train in London with Roger Gracie, the seven-time and current world champion. An unfortunate misunderstanding meant that when I got there, it turned out they thought that I was Roger Gracie. The sad truth – that I am a beginner and was gold medalist in the UK Southern Open (novice category) – must have come as a disappointment. They were a great bunch of guys, though, and surprisingly technical. They told me at the end that it was a "great honour" to have me at the club and insisted that I teach the next class. Bow before me, worms.

This is why I don't allow comments on the photos




Politics and the Economy
Like Algeria, Tunisia is a democratic dictatorship. President Ben Ali has been in power since the year dot, and regularly gets 99% of the vote in elections. He is digging in his heels - in 2002 the maximum age for a president was raised from 70 to 75 years, and they removed the restriction on how many times a president can be re-elected. There is some freedom of speech, but journalists often find themselves escorted to the police station for an "interview", before taking the traditional repeated tumble down the stairs on the way to the cells. All opposition parties have to be approved by the government – of course none voicing strong criticism of the incumbents ever are.

Nevertheless, the system sort of works. Tunisia is very stable, has low crime rates and their thriving non oil-dependant economy is seen as the model for all other African nations. Ironically, Tunisia has a spectacularly bloody history, with pretty much everyone taking a turn at the head of the table. A thousand years of Punic civilisation, the Romans in charge for 400 years, a century of vandal occupation, conquest by the Muslims, decades of Berber resistance, three hundred years of Turkish rule under the Husseinites and finally 75 years as a French protectorate. I'm guessing this is the reason for Tunisia's exceptionally tolerant and cosmopolitan culture.


Best Moments

  • Reaching the summit of Djebel Biri through the cork forests in the mountains around Ain Draham.

  • A day at the beach on Djerba, the island of dreams, where 'the air is so gentle that it will keep you from dying' (Flaubert). A day burning in the sun on a deckchair with the package tourists. Loved it.

  • An afternoon in the palmeraie in Tozeur with a local farmer, having the ins-and outs of date cultivation explained to me.

  • Hunting hawks in Haouaria.

  • Walking the length of Kerkenna Island off Sfax (35km). Just like a caribbean island.



  • Jiu-Jitsu in Sousse.

  • A day hanging out with schookids at Chak-Wak Park.




  • Waking up on Jugurtha's table. I spent one of the coldest nights of my life on this flat-topped mesa in western Tunisia, but it was worth it. The sunrise lit up the countryside all the way to Algeria.




    Worst Moments

  • Every human interaction at the Libyan Consulate.

  • Fainting on the loo in Bizerte.


    Best Food
  • Ojja Merguez – Spicy egg rattatouille with sausages. Great. I had this all the time.
  • Wild boar stew, under-the-counter in Ain Draham. Illegal, but you can get it if you ask around.
  • Harissa Libannais in Sousse. A moist cake made with jam and ground nuts.
  • Baklava in Kairouan – insanely addictive combination of pastry, almonds and honey. Reputed to be the best Baklava outside Turkey.

    Worst Food
  • The Lonely Planet says confidently: 'Because of the French influence you will find deliciously authentic croissants everywhere'. Lies. The croissants are consistently vile, basically just bread in a croissant shape.
  • Leblebbi – A soup loved by the locals. It is poured over bread and then mashed into a slurry. Looks just like baby food. Horrible.
  • Tunisians like their food spicy. I swear one 'Salade Tunisienne' I had was just a load of chopped chillies with a bit of olive oil. If you try it, be sure to use your fingers then rub your eye straight afterwards like I did.


    Conclusions
    After slogging round every museum in the country, I am now one of the world's foremost experts on mosaics and Hannibal, Tunisia's national hero. He is loved over here for his plucky losing effort against the Romans. I intend to bore people with this on my return.

    Tunisia is North Africa made easy. Good weather, good hotels, good food and little crime. Also, women can wear what they like and contrary to what I had been told to expect, the hassle is very low-key.

    The Tunisians neither cravenly idolise Europeans nor resent them with displaced envy. They are self-assured and rightly proud of their country, while remaining approachable and welcoming. Complete strangers make eye contact and smile, or hail you with a cheerful "bienvenue chez nous". Great country.