Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Visit to Tunisia by Joanie MacNeil

Towards the end of 2016, Facebook continued to tantalize me with memories of our 2013 holiday of a lifetime, visiting places we’d never imagined we’d see.

A two day stopover in Dubai following a long flight from Australia was a welcome break. The journey really began for us on arrival in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, in North Africa.

Tunis is both an ancient and modern city. On our first free day we caught a taxi to the markets (souk) and the old medina. The driver gave us some advice: say NO, NO! He continued in his not very clear English.

Along the busy streets, we better understood the taxi driver’s advice, meeting several new best friends. This was a new experience for me. The usual line, we saw you at your hotel, or there is a craft market on, just for today. I can take you there. One keen fellow we couldn’t discourage, no matter how insistent we were, didn’t lose interest when we made a quick impromptu dash into a store. He waited patiently for us to come out, then full of stories, and carrying an enormous key, guided us deep into the old medina with its narrow streets, shops, rubbish and nose-twitching smells. His mission: to take us to a craft market, which in fact turned out to be a carpet shop owned by a friend.

The two men raved on about the view from the roof. I climbed up the narrow stairs to it check out for myself, while the men tried to talk my husband into buying carpets. The rooftop was roughly tiled, a mix of colors and patterns, and no shade. I imagine the space would have been a pleasant enough place to relax in the evenings. Rooftops of different shapes and sizes, some dotted with satellite dishes. A dome, a spire, the hill near our hotel; some assorted buildings and the telecommunications building, filled my camera lens. Our new best friend then took us to a perfume shop, but when we didn’t buy anything, he lost interest and left us to find our own way out through the cobblestoned narrow covered alleys. Fortunately we kept our cool, retraced our steps through the many twisted walkways. Exhausted, and having experienced enough of the heat, we climbed into a beaten up old cab, without seatbelts, driven by a young lead-footed local, for the most hair-raising ride ever back to the hotel. Nothing like the pleasant experience of the earlier cab ride.

A special highlight for me was the camel ride from Douz, the largest desert outpost in Tunisia, into the southern Sahara. The peaceful beauty of the desert at the end of the day, with its pale blue and pink skies; light coloured sand; some vegetation, and tourists in bright headscarves and traditional dress, atop camels of all sizes. Beautiful black horses, ridden by men in colourful rich purple and gold tunics, and carriages for those who didn’t want to do the one hour camel trek.

There  were photo opportunities to pose holding a tiny desert fox, for a fee of course. With one hand gripping the reins, I reached out with the other and patted one of the soft, tiny foxes. The Fennec fox is a small nocturnal animal native to the Sahara and other semi-arid areas. Adults grow to a height of only 20 centimeters. Ears like those of bats span 15 centimeters, and radiate body heat to help keep the animals cool.

I thought the camel roped with mine might bite my foot as she often came close for a nuzzle. I’d heard stories about camels that bite! I did get my foot tangled in the rope, which was a bit worrying, but not as much as alighting from my huge male camel. Suffice to say that it’s easier for someone with longer legs than mine to slide over the side with ease. My lower back ached so much, I thought I might not be able to walk the next day!
Other highlights:

·       Dougga archaeological site: the best preserved and most extensive Roman ruins in Tunisia. Backdrop: the Atlas Mountains. 

·       Coastal Carthage where, in comparison to Dougga, there is little evidence of Roman settlement.

·       Sidi-Bou-Said, the pretty Andalusian-looking village, perched above the beautiful blue Mediterranean. White buildings and bright blue doors added to the summer experience.

·       Monastir: a visit to the Old Town and Kasbah where The Life of Brian was filmed.

·       El Djem: a 3rd century Roman colosseum originally seated 30,000, now a UNESCO world heritage site.
·       The troglodyte house at Matmata—the underground village, inhabited until the 1960s, served as the setting for the original Star Wars movie.

·       Crossing the salt lake of Chott el Jerid to Tozeur, an important oasis on the ancient caravan route between Algeria and Tunisia.

·       The added excitement of a sandstorm and flash flood during the jeep excursion from Tozeur to the mountain oasis of Chebika, not far from the Algerian border. The flooding was caused by a storm over the Algerian river catchment area. The awesome, spectacularly rugged mountains featured in The English Patient. We passed a pretty village in the mountains where the water swept by on its journey to the desert flood plain—the village was abandoned in the1990s because of flood damage and relocated on higher ground. On the way home, we drove past a bride, beneath a colorful circular canopy, perched on a camel in the midst of her procession.

·       A two hour journey on the Old Beys train, known as the Red Lizard, from Metlaoui Selja through the spectacular narrow, rugged Selja Gorges and return.

·       Visits to the Roman ruins at Sbeitla on our way to the sacred city of Kairouan, also of archeological/historical significance in Muslim history; the Grand Mosque, Tunis's oldest mosque; the museum, previously a Turkish palace, featuring mosaics from Roman times. The ancient floor mosaics were those from the original palace. Visitors had to wear paper shoes to avoid damaging the mosaics.

In the week we were in Tunisia, we travelled 1650 kilometers through agricultural areas with fruit and olive trees in the north; through drier southern regions, and desert with its cooling green oases and date palms; and industrial and mining areas.

Some of the villages we drove through were untidy, with haphazard buildings; others were much better cared for. Unfinished houses, still suitable to live in, with less fees to be paid by the owner in their unfinished state, were built from a special kind of red brick to suit the hot desert climate. Roadside food stalls, with local barbecued livestock for sale hanging amongst heat, dust and flies for anyone keen enough to buy and try. Smiling and not so happy faces. The men, sitting outside cafes in every village we passed through.  Apparently they walk in from their farms for breakfast, and stay until lunchtime, catching up with their neighbors from outlying areas. Further out in the countryside beneath makeshift shade against the heat, young men selling cheap fuel from Libya in plastic containers.
On the highway to the airport a small station wagon drove past us with mum, dad, a couple of children, and two goats in the back, probably going to the markets ahead. We saw local farmers herding their animals on foot, or riding a donkey over their barren lands.
Nothing about living in Tunisia is easy. It is very diverse; dry and sandy. A fascinating place to visit.

Joanie MacNeil