I maintain my travelog for my travels in Tunisia on this subpage; updates are irregular due to how questionable it is to find an Internet connection here. If you are friends with me on Facebook, I maintain these entries in my Notes as well. To be reminded of updates, try subscribing to this page via watchlist or RSS feed.
The Start of a Legend
3 January 2009, 23:56 PM
Today marks the first day I stepped foot on the grand continent of Africa, making my first foray into the country of Tunisia. I am rapidly discovering this nation's mesmerizing beauty, and despite being markedly different from the United States, the citizens here still enjoy a fine lifestyle, where the main pastime seems to be hanging out in coffee shops, lounging around and smoking with friends.
I began the day by packing my vital materials in a single suitcase and a bag and being dropped off at the airport. This was the day after I took a train back from Montréal, where I had been celebrating the new year with four of my close friends at a bar in the English-speaking section. It was not conducive to sleep on this ride since it was very bumpy and there were frequent calls for various stops in upstate New York, yet I had been forced to get a few uncomfortable naps due to me forcing myself to stay up many nights prior. Despite my body being all achy and staying up even more the night I had come back to Haddonfield, I still was diligent in packing my clothes, toiletries, documents, and other varied necessities. I loaded up my bags in my ride's car and set off to the airport, reaching it at around 5 PM.
Our plane left for Paris at 6:55 PM EST. The only thing tearing at me more than my immense sleep debt was my realization of just how little I had eaten; the last substantial meal I had had was a cheeseburger on the train from Montréal for lunch (I had to skip dinner because they would not accept my Canadian coins). I sat in the middle aisle, which contained four seats per row - I was in one of the two interior seats. Because of my hunger, I resolved that I would read the book I had gotten for Christmas, _Mount Allegro_, until the airline served me food, after which I would promptly fall asleep. Air France gave me an exquisite flight: there was not a hint of bumpiness after we had taken off, the beef and mashed potato dish they served was delicious as far as airline food goes, and they even provided a complimentary eye cover and ear plugs. These greatly helped me to fall asleep after reading about four chapters of the book and eating. I am not sure how long the flight was, but I reckon I slept for about 3/4 of it.
I was warmly woken up with a breakfast consisting of a chocolate-chip bun and orange juice, and I felt immediately refreshed despite having slept in with my contacts. This would later come to bother me, though, since I have worn these same contacts continually since I first woke up on the 31st in Montréal - even so, it is only a slight stinging that a good night's rest without them in will be able to fix. The four-hour stay in the Parisian airport was largely uneventful - there were no free WiFi access points in sight and much of time was spent alternatively making small talk and napping. However, it did mean that I would be spending time on three continents in the course of a day.
After a very mundane wait, we finally boarded the plane which would introduce me to Africa. During the ride, my attention was alternatively divided between reading Mount Allegro and watching my view of the the French interior expand from my window, eventually seeing the last stretch of European land give way to the Mediterranean. I had become lost in my book again, and before I knew it we had made landfall in Africa. Me in Africa! I still am having trouble realizing the enormity of this.
My inner shutterbug could not be contained almost the moment I left the plane; even at the airport, there were so many bizarre and intriguing signs and sights that would not be done justice were they not captured on camera. The security checks were notably more lax than the ones I had received in America and especially France - I can't help but to think Tunisia might be a hotbed for illicit substances trafficking? We shall see. Before I left the airport, I had exchanged my dollars for dinars - they came in very colorful 10, 20, and 30-dinar banknotes, as well as 1- and 5-dinar coins. The exchange rate was particularly favorable today; we were able to get about 1 dinar for every 1.2 dollars.
I have not been able to sleep for a long time, so I will continue this later. In my next entry, I will be discussing my fantastic dinner and the various odd plants and buildings that I visited and witnessed on the night walk, so keep your eyes on this spot - the next entry should prove to be a more intense adventure than this one.
Gallivanting Through the Delicious Smoke
04 January 08, 23:59
Tonight, we went again to the Sidi Bou Said (سيدي بو سعيد), a hilly town in the greater Tunis area with meandering paths, tricky stone staircases, and buildings featuring a uniform blue-and-white color pattern throughout its entirety. On the way, I took many pictures of the several cactus and palm species that lined the paths - it is enjoyable to see so many different varieties of plants than the comparably trite selection found on American sidewalks. A downward-sloped walk from the hotel led us into the heart of the town, where we walked up to its most recognizable landmark, the coffeshop Al-Aliya (مقهى العاية), and decided to break off into various small groups and explore the city for about an hour. I found my way into one group who wished to go back down the inclined path up to the cafe and through its various side roads. We had to further fragment this group since we managed to attract a particularly large and somewhat unmanageable following.
I found my way with Ted, Adam, and Sara, and after passing by some sleepy plate and textile shops, we found our way into an art gallery, the Rawaq Al-Funun (رواق الفنون). There were several paintings for sale - I am not an art connoisseur, but I contend that they looked most like European impressionist paintings. Gemstones of topaz and amethy and rings crafted from silver were flashily displayed in the back and side rooms. However, the most intriguing thing were the various CDs placed inconveniently on two ends of a narrow hallway. Adam asked about which artists were popular in Tunisia - like in the States, there seems to be "classical" Tunisian music from artists such as Khaled (خالد), and more modern music by artists from Sofia (صوفية). The cover on the Sofia album led to a curious discussion about blonde hair among Adam and the shop owner. During this whole time, the shop owner wanted me to speak in English despite my attempts to converse in Arabic; I later asked my professor how to say "I insist" to make sure I will bolster my speaking skills on this trip.
After bumbling around the city with my small group, we eventually stumbled upon the coffeeshop Al-Aliya, where I was afforded my first opportunity to smoke a hookah. Naturally, I was very eager to try this, so I headed over there with a group of six others. After taking our shoes off, we sat down on some slightly elevated platforms adorned with carpets, which hosted a small green table. We each asked for some tea in Arabic - "شاي من فضلك". The tea we received was topped with pine nuts and had a very pleasant mint flavor, though I cursed myself for drinking my tea too quickly. In addition, we ordered a shisha (شيشى) as a table. We soon discovered that service in the Middle East is far more lax than in the United States - instead of having a waiter constantly attend to our needs every fifteen or so minutes, they largely left us to their own business and liberally took their time in serving us. While it seemed odd at first, I believe I prefer this method since it allows me time to simply lounge out and have good conversation.
After a pleasing wait, the waiter brought out our shisha and placed it on the table. It had a single pipe, which we graciously passed around in the semicircle that we formed. There was a buzz of exciment amid the air beyond just the usual euphoria of smoking a hookah, and many people in the group had a jolly time taking pictures of us variously smoking, inhaling, and exhaling the vapors. The smoke itself was far lighter than I expected it to be - in fact, I was inhaling harder than usual since I didn't think I was receiving enough of the effect. If my prediction that I will start regularly smoking hookah is accurate, I figure that this will soon become second nature. The smoke itself had a light, soothing apple taste which was easy on my lungs, though of course I had choked on it right when I having my pictures taken.
I experimented with various way of releasing the smoke. At first I just forcefully exhaled it from my mouth, which I do not believe made for an effective presentation. Later, there was some talk about how to form smoke rings by forming your mouth into an "O" shape and moving your tongue from the back of your throat to the front - I failed miserably at this, but one girl in our group was quickly picking up on the technique. My two favorite methods were to exhale all the smoke from my nostrils at a moderate pace, and to simply open my mouth and let the smoke flow out in a lazy, billowing cloud. This last method I used suits me the best, plus it adds to the relaxing atmosphere that the hookah provides.
Conversation while smoking the hookah seemed to come more easily and naturally. Whether this was because of the smoke or simply the atmosphere is hard to determine, since I felt only a minimal "buzz" at best. I think the mood in the room was simply a lot more jovial, plus the hookah gave us something to talk about beyond simply the usual bends and twists that a hearty talk takes you in. Despite this only being my first time smoking a hookah, I am glad that I was able to do it authentic Middle Eastern-style (save for the the telltale signs of us being American tourists) and am certainly inviting the possibility of purchasing one for myself for use in the States.
I have yet to discuss my experiences in the morning, where I walked in the downtown area of Tunis city and through the motley open-air markets, but sleep is rapidly conquering me once again so I must save that for another day. Until them, adieu, مع سلام!
A Twinge of Ages Past
08 January 2009, 14:12
We had a break from classes and assignments today, but still had to begin what would be a bustling day early. I woke up around the first breaking of dawn, prepared myself for the day, and headed down at 8:15 to the hotel restaurant to have a somewhat uneventful breakfast. While the amenities in this hotel overall far surpass those of our last, the food in this hotel is certainly not as good - instead of eating authentic Tunisian dishes, we are instead eating comparatively mediocre food catered to the largely-tourist hotel population. This and the increased distance between all of our rooms are what bother me the most; overall, I really wish we could have stayed in host families. (Update: we will be staying with host families! In my section on the town of La Marsa, I will detail my first encounter with my family, which amusingly happened entirely by chance.)
After breakfast, we began the day by visiting an American cemetery dedicated to the troops who had lost their lives in the North African campaigns World War II. The atmosphere of the environment was such that were I not consciously aware that I was in Tunisia, I would have believed myself to be back in the States, perhaps at the latitude of North Carolina. Our tour guide showed us first to a polished stone wall which had engraved on it the names of all the troops which had lost their lives in service, along with three stone statues of women respresenting Honor, Memory, and Recollection. Fitting for such a dedication, all sorts of ornamental trees, flowers, and grasses grew alongside this wall in little beds of soil, and a bouquet had been placed down on one facet of the wall by a relative of some departed soldier.
Continuing along, our guide then pointed out to us a few lavish maps, set almost entirely in mosaic, which detailed and documented the North African campaigns, including the routes taken by the Allied and Axis forces as well as the sites of major battles. Explanatory texts sidled these displays, which I was sure to take pictures of - I have uploaded them along with this document and will type them up as text when I get a chance. Within this pavillion was a stone sepulchre, complete with a inscription honoring the lives of the soldiers who had died. The group as a whole stood in front of this monument for a moment of silence while an attendant cued a recording of the national anthem, complete with gunshots at the end.
The next exhibit was a small temple to commemorate the faith of those who had passed. Hung from the side wall were flags representing each branch of the American military, and from the back wall was mounted a large cross with a compass at its center for the Christian soldiers who had died in the war. In addition, a small stonehead in remembrance of the Jewish forces was situated in the corner of the temple. Beyond the cross and the altar below it, one can overlook the entire cemetery through a window - stone markers shaped like crosses spanning throughout the entire area, with a few headstones topped with a Star of David mixed in for the Jewish soldiers.
Before long, we ventured into the field itself. Each tombstone showed the name, division, military rank, and year of death for those graves who were known, as well as the service number at the foot of the stone on the opposite side. A fair number of graves, however, marked a unidentified combatant - on these stones was marked "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God". The tour guide remarked that when Jewish mourners came to the graves, they would put stones on top of the two outstretched arms on the Star of David headstones. In addition, one particular headstone had received a bundle of flowers from Chelsea Clinton when she was visiting with her mother, who was on an official duty in Tunisia. This was the extent of the cemetery itself, but inside the visitor's center was a video detailing the war in North Africa, the official documents and letters which had established the cemetery, and a fresca depicting the Roman god Neptune which the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, dedicated to the cemetery.
This led us to briefly tour around La Marsa, a subject which I will document in an entire article. I feel the trips to this small town deserved to be addressed altogether - nevertheless, this hour-and-a-half long block of time was certainly an intriguing, if not enjoyable time. (Don't get me wrong! I had fun! Though in retrospect, as least as far as I can see, the town is more enjoyable at night than during the day.)
After this day trip, it was on to exploring more ruins at the historic city of Carthage (قرطاج). Our guide for this was Si Najib (سي نجيب), who you might have seen if you have ever tuned into those specials about ancient empires on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel. He first pointed out to us the old ruins of the buildings the Romans had built - they created small living quarters since, at the time, the arch had not been invented and therefore the walls could not support a very heavy roof. Rubbles of columns and defaced statues were abound - after the Christian era in Rome, one of its emperors decreed that all statues of the pagan gods which were once worshipped had to be destroyed. Most of them were, but a few holdoffs and art conversationists of antiquity had managed to preserve some of them, including two statues of a Greek god which was always depicted as being ugly, fat, and drunk.
From these ruins, we went into the museum itself, a 18th century French cathedral which had been converted for the purposes of display. Housed within it were several mosaics and frescas, one of which covered nearly a third of the floor we were standing on. In order to see the entire piece, one had to go halfway up a flight of stairs and gaze down on it. In addition to these deliberate remains, there were also the refuse and debris of broken pots, tools, and other paraphenalia kept inside glass cases. At the time, ostriches were still rampant throughout North Africa, and the settlers there took it upon themselves to use their large eggs as storage vessels for fluids and grains. The back room on this floor showed more statues of Greek gods, here largely intact and well-preserved, though the garish paint which had once colored them has long since worn off.
The upper floor contained a few maps and some specific artifacts, such as the skeleton of a man who had been buried with his arms crossed. However, I was most intrigued instead by the miniature recreations of the living space and structures that were built during the Roman occupation - they had built a raised forum for the commoners to conduct their business and frolick, which was surrounded by a inner quarters supported with tightly-clustered columns. Behind the forum was the trial house, where criminals and pariahs would receive their judgment and see the last of their days. All of these structures were in turn supported by a large array of horizontal arches (which had been invented, the vertical arch was still in the works) which acted as buttresses to hold up the weight of all the roofs and columns.
As we left for the bus, I was approached by a man who tried to sell me some corroded copper coins for ten dinars (about US $7.50). Per the standard, my curiosity got the best of me, I just had to see what he was selling. (Note to future entepreneurs: approach me if you need to sell something.) After studying them somewhat carefully, I determined that the coins were probably worthless or forgeries - or, at the very least, nowhere near worth the price he was asking. Not wishing to practice my heckling skills, I politely bowed out from his offer and continued on to the bus, from where we would be exploring an old Roman bath-house which faced the sea, affording us a beautiful view amid the ruins.
We were given a brief warning not to take pictures in a certain direction; one of the President's palaces is situated right next to these ruins. Without further ado, Si Najib promptly begain to explain the bath house to us in his scholarly English accent: the building was used in the same manner as those baths which were in the mainland Empire, whereby the patrons would first undress and immerse themselves in any number of small, cooled tubs with perhaps one or two other people. After their bodies were sufficiently chilled, they would go on to the main bath, which was large, warmed, and public. This was a central social hub in Roman culture, and chances are that if you needed to talk to some important figure, you would be able to locate him here in the nude and discuss your affairs with him. The baths were sex-segregated, which made the female-designated baths the prime place for their socialization in a male-dominated society. Once the bathers were fully cleaned, they would spend some time in the frigidarium - as its name suggests, this was a cold room without a tub. From here, they would redress themselves and head back into town.
After this explanation, we were able to behold the ruins - the stones were orange, faded, and had become host to all sorts of shrubs and grasses sprouting out from various odd nooks. Being a later construction, vertical arches had been invented by this time, and were used with aplomb in the construction of the bath house. Furthermore (and it is on this point that I delight the most), there were a vast number of objects to climb upon and hang from in awkward positions. I had climbed up to a stone roof up from a wall, which had a variety of slightly unstable outcroppings upon which I made my uneasy footing. While exploring this, some of the guards took notice and angrily shouted at us, so we scrammed down a moderately tall wall at whose foot lay a puddle of mud. I had almost slipped in this and warned the other two about it, but nevertheless one of the others did not get a good landing and lost out to gravity, getting some of the mud on her pants. A few pictures later, we were just about ready to leave, but we had almost left one of our crew back in the ruins! The sight of him running back to catch up through the gates was cute yet pitiful, which had endeared many of the girls and garnered some chuckles from the guys.
In my next entry, I plan to sum up all of the trips we have had so far to La Marsa, a small, cozy town in the suburbs of Tunis, including the details on my host family. Be prepared for my best entry yet!
(N.B. I have been without an Internet connection for the past few days on account of some construction work being done up the street. Such as I have been doing so much during that time, a few of these entries will be delayed and perhaps outdated, yet I hope they still prove an interesting read.)
We're Going Native!
16 January 2009, 00:38
First off, I apologize for the extreme delay in getting this up, a combination of a broken keyboard, a faulty Internet connection, and just plain not feeling well. Luckily, all three have dissipated, which has afforded me the chance to put this up.
A few days ago marked my first true immersion into the life of everyday Tunisians as I moved into my host family from La Marsa. I was greeted by my father, Mansour (منصور), who teaches at a local elementary school, and his wife Henda (هندة), who is also a teacher - yet she speaks Arabic way too fast for me to understand most of it. In addition to my parents, I have three host brothers: the oldest is Achraf (أشرف), who is twenty-five and is studying to become a lawyer; the youngest is Aziz (عزيز), who is seventeen and plays volleyball; and between the two of them is Moemen (مؤمن), who is twenty years old and so far has hung out with us the most.
Our house is a special case: instead of two students staying in the house as everyone else is, we have four students - one of the intended families apparently had an emergency which rendered them incapable of hosting the extra pair. Nevertheless, Remi and Matt made for an enjoyable addition to our crew as we began the evening hanging out with Moemen on the roof of the house. His affectionate demeanor led us quickly into conversation - he began the conversation by discussing his love of fast cars, shishas, and "house music", all of which meet the disapproval of his mother, who puts great worth on the traditional teachings of the Quran (قرآن). We continued to spend a relaxing evening overlooking La Marsa and its variegated plant species and listening to the last prayer of the day, after which we all plowed down the stairs to enjoy our first authentic homecooked Tunisian dinner.
Henda had prepared for us an exquisite meal of Lebanese flatbread (which had the consistency and texture of tortillas, but was much richer in flavor)and a salami salad with fennel, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs, to which I have taken a liking during this trip. In addition, there was the regular staple of bread, olive oil, and a spicy chili pepper-based paste called harissa (هريسة) available as an appetizer. Moemen, in his usual joking manner, dared me to eat a spoonful of harissa - he asked the right person (or maybe the wrong one?), since I accepted the opportunity with open arms. Achraf began filming me while everyone drew their attention to me - at first, they thought that I was joking, but a visible wave of shock passed through the room as I downed the flaming red paste with utter glee. A smile stretched out across my mouth as my family made hurried pleas to give me water, yet miraculously I did not feel a bit thirsty. I ate the rest of my meal without consuming a single drop of water.
Later that night, the UD crew and our three host brothers went out to Cafe Fairouz (مقهى فيروز), which offered a beautiful view of the Mediterranean beyond a tree-lined path. In addition to the usual selection of teas and coffees, Dave, Matt, and I each ordered a personal shisha. Again, Moemen and his fun-loving demeanor kicked in, and my proclivity to perform bizarre acts was receptive to his scheming: this time, he wanted me to smoke three shishas at once. Achraf the cameraman stepped in once again to record this epic moment on film as our waiter, Hatem (حاتم), continued to place hot coals on all three shishas. Firmly occupying the scene, I then carried the discussion between me and Hatem into the realm of women and what we found attractive in them - this has become something of a running gag, and not being in the company of women we were not afraid to show our masculinity. Dave and Moemen offered me fifty dinars each to go over and talk to a women sitting at the other table, but I did not accept this offer because I was unable to think well in Arabic that day. After a few more bawdy jokes, we bade farewell to Hatem, and the seven of us walked back to the house to rest up for a bustling day making purchase in the traditional Arabian marketplace in Tunis.
Known in Arabic as the Suq (سوق), this area of the capital city easily has the most Arabian flavor to it. Any American movie with a depiction of the Middle East shows the unvarnished truth: it is essentially a crowded maze of walkways packed to the brim with vendors selling all sorts of shiny wares and where bargaining is the name of the game. From Tunis proper, there were two routes leading into the Suq - since we had already taken one in our last visit of the city, we decided to travel down the other path, which led to the right. Contrary to my expectations, there were all sorts of brand-name clothing from American and European companies being sold down this path, and it was especially packed even for the Suq. We managed to escape this tourist trap in one group, after which we promptly veered away from it and ended up on a less traveled path rife with hookahs, kuffiyahs, and perfumes.
We immediately immersed ourselves and entered a shop which sold the distinctly Arabian kuffiyah (كوفية), a two-colored checkered scarf which is worn by men over their heads. This afforded us our first chance to practice our bargaining skills - at first the scarves were marked at ten dinars, but we were able to mark them down to six dinars. Remi was able to get a maroon-and-white kuffiyah made with special fabric ("made in Palestine", according to the merchant, despite the label clearly saying it was made in Tunisia) from thirteen dinars to ten dinars. We were given a warm reception based on our ability to speak French and Arabic, which likely garnered us a better discount than the rest of the naïve tourists moving in and out of the place.
Beyond the kuffiyah, I also purchased a fez which had been marked at fifteen dinars, but again I was able to establish good rapport with the shop owner and got a 33% discount on it. All of the owners seemed genuinely impressed at my Arabic speaking abilities, which gives me a slight shock since I feel my speaking skills are far weaker than my reading and writing skills. The fez in particular is important in terms of this trip because it is associated with Tunisia - wherever I go in the Arab world, the locals will recognize the hat and know where I got it from. I left this shop and met up with my housemates, but not before I was brought aside by a persistent merchant selling me hashish (أعشاب, 'a3shaab), which I wisely declined. Khalil would later tell me that the quality of the hashish in the Suq is poor even if I did want to smoke it and that the penalties for possession are much stricter in Tunisia than in the United States.
Perhaps the best deal I got during my stay was from a vendor who sold several wallets of varying sizes - I needed to replace my magic wallet from Commerce Bank since it cannot hold dinar bills well (they are wider than US dollars and make it hard to pull out money). To prove their authenticity, he took a lighter to one of his wallets and showed that the flame did not melt or blacken the wallets. He was offering these for eleven dinars at first, but Matt had barged into the store suggesting that I demand it for four dinars. Seizing the opportunity, I promptly made the offer - the owner exclaimed that "Your friend is crazy!" and made several disapproving gestures. I playfully echoed his sentiments in Arabic (Mejnun! مجنون!) but firmly maintained my price. He raised the ante to six dinars, which was acceptable for me and landed me a large brown wallet with multiple card slots, two bill pouches, and a slot for placing my ID card.
During my next trip to the suq several days later, I was able to land myself a tea set with a small pitcher and five glasses for the poorly-argued price of 55 dinars, though I got two ceramic tiles and an extra glass free with this purchase. On a better note, I also purchased three silver necklaces for ten dinars, a small backpack for fifteen dinars, and a orange-and-black kuffiyah made of pleasing-soft fabric for myself for ten dinars. In addition, I helped drive down the price of two sunglasses to seven dinars apiece, with me and a friend each taking a pair. Overall, I would say this was a worse day for my bargaining skills - I had been stuttering in Arabic and unable to find the right words and numbers - but if nothing else, I was able to reflect on this experience and will come back to the Suq with a heightened savviness.
Coming up next is my experience in the hammam (حمّام), a public Turkish bath, as well as a mystery subject which you will find out when the article is published. As always, keep your eyes glued here! My entries should be more frequent during our twelve-day excursion outside of the house since I will have a stable Internet connection and too much to talk about.
The Clothes Are Coming Off
A few nights ago, I went with my family and my housemates to the hammam (حمّام), a public bathhouse descended from the old Turkish baths that are spread throughout the whole former territory of the Ottoman Empire. We had to go at night - it is segregated by sex according to time, and during the afternoon it is occupied by women. We brought along our toiletries, change of clothes, and towels, and headed out to the hammam - it was within walking distance. The first one we tried to visit, however, was closed, even after the family argued with the management and peered through the window by standing atop an unstable pile of rubble, so we went back to the house to visit another one - which, as we would later learn, was a wise decision.
We entered the hammam, greeted by a changing room where we were given lockers to hold our stuff. We stripped down to our bathing suits and trunks here (all the men were nude except for this), then grabbed our toiletries and headed onwards to the cleaning facilites. And what a variegated display we saw: the neatly tiled room was so full of steam that our visibility was slightly reduced. Nevertheless, I could still make out spickets for both hot and cold water dotted along the perimeter of the room and private showering rooms with locking doors, each containing a small stool. The two most interesting features, however, were the room over to the left, even more congested with steam than the main hall thanks to two candles at the top of the room (which also provided the only light within the room itself) and the flat panel on the right room where employees gave professional massages and scrubbings to whomever wanted them.
The eight of us began by sitting in the dark room, simmering our feet in hot water held in large plastic pails, which were provided for free use alongside some gourd-like devices which had a handle which we could use to scoop up water and lap it upon ourselves. Being the constantly-intrigued type, I grew somewhat bored of this and joined Aziz up on a raised landing, where the steam was at its thickest thanks to the candles, constricting my vision even further. It was almost suffocating to be up here for too long - I could only keep my head up here for a few minutes at a time and had to take long, labored breaths after only several seconds. During this time, I talked to Moemen and Achraf about starting a hammam business in America, making myself president and the two of them vice-presidents. However, I was only joking about that prospect - or am I?
Next came the time we spent thoroughly cleaning our bodies. We lathered ourselves with our soap, taking hot showers either in the stalls or outside with the public shower. This allowed me to use my new shampoo and almond-infused milk soap, both of which I approved. In addition, I received a massage from the man that Mansour personally recommended - it was a very interesting experience, to say the least. The massager stretched me in ways that I did not think possible, and he relieved stresses on my joints that I was not aware of until he soothed them free. He also had a special coarse sponge which he lathered up with shampoo and liberally scratched over my whole body - apparently this is supposed to clear off dead skin and reduces risks of infections as well as making you smell fresher. I finished off this hammam experience with a shave using one of the little scoopers to wash off my blade and changed into my pyjamas back in the foyer, all for only three dinars.
We went two days later to the hammam that was closed on our first night. Everything about this place seemed tawdry in comparison to the other one: the facilities were less clean and did not feature any wonderful mosaics, just plain blue and white tiles. Furthermore, the men there were likely all ex-convicts - they had large tattoos covering their bodies depicting things such as snakes and demons, and one of them had a straight-blade razor, but I seemed to pay no attention to this and went about my jolly way. Luckily, for my own sake, Dave had kept a lookout for me and advised me not to strut about the place so freely. To be honest, though, the people there were not inhospitable - perhaps a bit brusque and annoyed by our presence, but still they did not show any outward signs of disrespect to at least me.
The last hammam we went to was unique among the three - while the other two were similar in regards to their amenities, this one featured an odd combination of a cool room and a searing-hot room which was filled as much as possible with steam. So saturated was this room with steam that it was simply impossible to see further than three inches. Nevertheless, I explored around with extreme caution on the slippery tiles and discovered a trough filled with warm-hot water, which I laid in and soaked my arms, legs, and hair. I spent the rest of the time lounging out on the raised platforms and attempting feebly to do some crunches, then retired to the cool room for a shower and dressed myself in the changing room.
And now, for my surprise topic: maybe it was obvious, maybe you thought it wouldn't come, but it's here now. Without further ado, I'm putting the Man in Mandrew...!
To begin the chronicle of my escapades, I present an incident which occurred in the Celio store at Carrefour, a mall on the outskirts of La Marsa. While perusing their selection of "les t-shirts", a very pretty employee wearing blue eyeliner came up to me and asked me something in French. I whipped out the only French I know, "Je ne parlais français," and without any further warning proceeded to talk her in Arabic. Immediately her expression livened up, and we carried ourselves into a discussion on our studies and travels. She did not speak much English, so we had to hinge on my knowledge of Arabic to communicate - nevertheless, we were able to tell each other our aspirations for employment and education, and she even made a few suggestions on the shirts I chose. However, despite my command of Arabic, I still was struggling to find the right words, so this sadly had to remain a brief flirtation.
Prior to this, I had partied at the discotheque in the Hotel Mouradi in Gommarth (قمرت), where we would have spent the entire trip had the host familiy stays not worked out. One of the workers at the hotel noticed that I was dancing improperly (shock!), so we spent some time dancing with each other the proper way in the middle of a rowdy circle of Delaware students. It was hard to retain my composure in the pandemonium that had erupted down there, but eventually I recalled my informal lessons from ages past and was able to put on an acceptable demonstration. Expect more details about the night life in Tunisia later in the trip - we almost certainly will be going out to one, hopefully with some locals.
However, what happened yesterday puts both of those meager stories to shame: we were touring some ancient mosques and forts being guided by Si Najib. At the last fort we visited, I walked up a hefty flight of stairs to bear witness to a small museum carved out from one of the abandoned embattlements. A man nearby was selling newspapers and gestured as much to me. In reply, I said "لا أريد الجريدة" (I don't want the newspaper) - this pleasantly surprised everyone sitting around the area, and they could not help but break out into laughter. The curator of the museum, curious about this Westerner who could speak Arabic, began bombarding me with friendly questions about where I was from, how long I have been studying Arabic, etc. I told her that I wrote articles for my school newspaper and that I was considering becoming a journalist and that I would consider buying the newspaper when I left.
This discussion raised the attention of two female visitors nearby, who seemed just as mesmerized at my Arabic abilities as the museum employees were. Recognizing me as an English speaker, they took this opportunity to practice their knowledge of the language with me - they had only been studying for two years, but their command of the language was stronger than my Arabic. Luckily for me, the more attractive of the two, Rania (رانية), seemed more interested in me, and showed as much by looking me straight in the eye and beaming with a sincere smile. Amused by this demonstration, several members of our crew took pictures of the three of us talking about our travels and their desire to become English teachers - they were from the north of the country, but are temporarily residing in more southerly reaches to attend university.
Things took an interesting turn as we climbed up one of the fort's towers - it is structured roughly like a lighthouse, but its spiral staircase is made of somewhat irregularly placed stones and was much darker and narrower. Rania had exclaimed to me "Oh! I'm afraid of the dark!", which led me to ascend the tower with me holding her hand and hugging the innermost edge. Several of the guys on the trip made some intriguing (though not offensive) comments about this display, but mostly they were grumbling about how it complicated their descent from the tower. Eventually, I reached the top with Rania and her friend, and we could overlook the entire city of Kerouan.
We stared down at the many harbors, buildings, and streets which dominated this somewhat poor costal town, which thrives primarily on tourism. By this time, Rania had sidled next to me. She was joking around a little bit with Dave and few members of our crew, but quickly returned to discussion with me. We had been making light of our ethnicities and playfully stating how the Asians on our crew were related to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and that I because I was Italian, I was connected to Sylvester Stallone. By this time, we had climbed back down the tower and were looking around in some parts of the fort we had not explored. Unfortunately, this all came to a bittersweet ending as Khalil had called us back to the bus before I had a chance to get her number - perhaps our paths will wend together again, but alas, I have no guarantee that they will. Still, I predict this is the start of something big...stay tuned for more!
My next entry will discuss Aziz's volleyball game (with considerable assistance from him, since I know so little about the art of that game) and our treks through the Sahara, from which I am writing this entry right now. As always, don't blink for a second lest you miss an entry! They should be appearing more frequently now that I have a break from studies and am going on a twelve-day excursion touring the whole country.
The Soaked Sahara, Part One
27 January 2008, 20:39
My, what a wonderful landscape! We have entered the Tunisian Sahara, and it has presented some of the most gorgeous views that I have ever seen in my entire life. Accentuating this geographic panoply of mountains, plains, salt lakes, and dunes was the fact that despite being a desert, it rained for four days straight - an aberration which has not happened here for fifteen years. So torrential was the rain that one of our hotels, with its open-air roofs and supposedly sun-licked walkways, was flooded with an inch of water in certain areas.
Our exploration of this forbidding terrain began with a train ride through the mountains on the fringe of the desert. Our vessel careened along carefully-navigated tracks that followed, not fought, the natural undulations of the terrain, though occasionally a particularly thick knot of mountains made it necessary for the track to wend its way through tunnels. Every so often, the train would stop and we would be able to leave and immerse ourselves in the scenery.
While standing atop jagged medium-sized rocks which ran down a steep gradient ending in a small streamlet, I beheld the mountains with this smooth, almost vertical surfaces patterned by a dazzling spectrum of auburn, tan, beige, and sienna arranged in horizontal streaks. The only vegetation growing here were some rugged-looking flowers with soft lavender petals and some grungy shrubs which grew out of the few sand pockets interspersed between the rocks. Further along the tracks, I saw an impressive ravine - a miniature fjord, I would contend - where the rain-fed streams flowed between two impressive pillars of stone, coated in that ancient gamut of browns and orange-reds. Accentuating these eternal edifices was a true blue sky far into the distance.
The last train stop brought us to a flatter area, strewn with gray pebbles and small stones. Given my natural inclination to climb anything which looks reasonably sturdy, I crossed the train tracks (we only were let out on one side of the train and waltzed up a irregularly-shaped outcropping of some pewter-tinted boulder. Being the highest point where a fall would not risk me breaking a bone, I looked out and felt the wet wind blowing into my face, my eyes tearing and reddening from the abundance of moisture, but still joyous that they were taking in this magnificient natural scenery. Words cannot do this justice - I will upload some pictures alongside this entry (and actually do it this time) so you can appreciate these desert fringes a bit more.
The interior of the train presented its fair share of surprises too. An elevated seat allowed me to look above the roof of the train from the safety of some Plexiglass windows, which were clear enough for me to take a few pictures from. Several locals waved to us from the sides of the track - I got off a smile and a wave before we zoomed yonder towards the desert. A few members of the group spoke a little bit with a Brit, who had been climbing in these mountains half a century prior and also traveled extensively throughout North America as well. Perhaps the most peculiar moment was, while I was ordering some Bugles, one of the workers remarked that I "looked like Harry Potter" (I firmly deny this accusation) and was pining to know whether Daniel Radcliffe was still alive after a fight which apparently broke out at one of his private parties. Describing this event sent one of our group members into a wild fit of laughter.
That afternoon, we took a cadre of SUVs out into the remote desert, devoid of any signs of civilization beyond the paved tarmac road we used to get there. The first stop took us to a bumpy plain, over which was scattered various tough-looking desert shrubs and the processed lunch of the wild camels, who were grazing there before our arrival but lazily sauntered away from us. Nevertheless, a few of us had the audacity to chase after these slow beasts. Adam apparently evoked the ire of one cantakerous camel and was being chased by it some seventy-four yards away from the road. He eventually was able to best the camel and darted back to safer terrain, beyond which the camels stopped caring about his intrusion. After a few more sprints across this beautiful, barren landscape, we saundered back to our SUVs to continue our trek.
I proudly became the envy of every basement-dwelling nerd as we arrived at the legendary set of Star Wars, still preserved in the governate of Tatouine (تطاوين). Funnily enough, The buildings on this set closely mirrored the traditional Berber house architecture of mud-brick walls, but had just enough of that extragalactic flair to be recognized as a distinct entity. Odd silver-gray pillars were abound on this set, tapering at their tops to a long, fine antenna. Outside of these buildings, we climbed about on the various unstable staircases with the abandon of Victorian-era children who were finally freed from their stuffy, pampered life. Going inside the buildings was slightly underwhelming - there were no internal walls, only the back-faces of the exterior ones, and the wooden scaffolding had remained in place. (Yes, I did climb it - I got high enough to peer over the wall, but I quickly ceased my ascent when I heard a questionable creak from one of the boards.) The upside was that the windows in these buildings made for a nice pose for taking pictures.
Returning to the hotel was an adventure in and of itself - the SUV drivers showed no restraints in freestyling over the rolling dunes, and we took several dips and dives with our fate in their hands. Consultation with my fellows afterwards made me suspect we had one of the wildest of the pack. He took us to a flat sandy plain with some regularly arranged, jagged brown rocks, each about the size of a large gorilla. In vainglorious spite of these risky conditions, he had the chutzpah to pull off a few donuts between these pillars of doom. Yet, having experienced some reckless drivers in my own family, I felt strangely safe in this hunky metal chassis - the driver's movements were graceful and calculated, the mark of a man who constantly flirts with death but never quite manages to kiss Her. (Sorry for the allusion, ladies!)
Upon the next morning of being alive - الحمد لله! Elhamdullah! - the group boarded the SUVs once again to spend a whimsical but physically taxing morning blazing across the dunes. Since the rain had stopped by now, this was the desert wearing her most sincere face - dry, featureless, and utterly without remorse, yet still a joy to play on. Ikram, our Arabic professor, made her enjoyment obvious, calling out her distinctive "whoo-whoo!" as she tumbled down the first dune we climbed. After a laborious trudge up that same dune, I lunged down the other side, spewing sand everywhere as momentum took a hold of my now-puny physical form. This rapture was so great for Ted that he ended up falling down, rolling until he hit the foot of the dune. A group of macho men who have titled themselves The Trifecta plowed into the interior and gave heroic poses at the broad, flat peak of one dune. Our immersion in the natural landscape had to come to an end, however - but as I ran down that very slope I had first conquered, I kicked around the sand in such a bizarre manner that I managed to get some in my mouth. For a moment I became a camel, wildly spitting on the side of the road until I cleared out enough of the grit for me to be satisfied.
As you guessed from the title, you'll be hearing more of my outstanding adventures in the most impressive desert in the world. Watch your step, hold on to your reins and don't close your eyes, I'll be taking you on a wild ride! As always, keep your eyes on this space!
The Soaked Sahara, Part Two
One entry in my travelog cannot do justice to the grandeur of the Sahara - in fact, two is still an absolute disgrace to a geographical feature which I honestly believe deserves volumes of books devoted to it. Nevertheless, this is the most justice I can give it for now, especially in this rare time when its parched vegetation is quenching its thirst on these four days of unrelenting rain.
My safari in the Sahara continues as we explored another mountain range on the fringes of the desert. Out of all the lands we visited, the rain's effects here were the most pronounced: what were once bare-stone gullies have been transformed into speedy, meandering rivulets, darting about between the rocks and flowing off the edges to create gushing snow-white waterfalls. Even the air was affected by this meteorological anomaly: instead of the clear blue skies which so often accompany deserts, the entire landscape was blanketed in a dreary gray layer of fog, which hampered visibility and made for a lousy day of photography.
As the group plowed into this thicket of mountains, we were met with suspicious-looking lakes of vibrant green water, which looked unsafe to drink or even touch. Per the course, we were also hounded by many merchants, most of them wearing mopey faces and trying to sell various gemstones and these strange rocks which almost defy explanation - they are roughly circular as opposed to being flat or oblong, and protruding from their central point are several sand-colored, thick planes which taper to a fine edge and are rounded at their ends. Allured by the presence of amethyst, my Arabic professor had a field day doing business with these merchants - she stood out as a tourist more than the rest of us despite being a native Tunisian!
The issues of navigating this terrain in these damp conditions soon became miserably manifest to us all: the dessicated dirt that once covered the stairs leading up to the summit had soaked up so much moisture that it transformed into a thick layer of semi-solid mud. that it was like walking through mounds of marshmallow fluff - every step was a laborious task as the goop ensnared our shoes, only relenting its indefatigable grasp after we concentrated our entire weight and mind into releasing our feet from its grapple. Some of the girls on our trip had the misfortune to be wearing sandals or flip-flops - they were no match for the mud, and every step threatened to strip the flimsy pads straight off their feet. Of course, the mud won many of these battles, which left them to stand on one foot until a kind passerby could dig up the stolen
For those of us who were wearing more secure footwear, delving into the interior of this formation was only a slight impediment, and we were able to see the summit of the mountain in all of its rejuvenated splendor (but only as much as the fog permitted): large stones lined out a path for us which ran alongside the natural troughs, which housed the small streams of rainwater all racing down to collect in those toxic-green lakes. The path was by no means cruising; every perch and step had to be carefully calculated lest I risk a tumbling fall, especially considering how slippery they were, but it was similar enough to the hiking expeditions I embarked on during my camping trips as a child and more recently in Maine for me to navigate it deftly.
Right before we began the tricky climb up to the first summit, two things immediately caught my attention: there was a large palm tree growing on the other side on the stream, its roots twisting through the rocks and apparently finding rich soil underneath them. More impressive, however, was a deep croaking sound which undulated through the air and which I could feel on the skin of my face. A brief exploration through the fog revealed that this sound came from a toad, who kept on making his incessant din and would stop at no distraction. More pertinent to me was a rocky ascent which I could feel swaggering at me, daring me to climb up it. Of course, I gave into this temptation and proceeded to dart up it until the mud had so stymied my movement that I was forged to trudge the rest of the way up. Oh, how vast and clear the view would be were it not for that infuriating layer of fog!
The struggles against the mud that we fought earlier were but petty squabbles compared to the tall staircase leading directly to the caps of the mountains. So thick were these slabs of mud that one of the crew members donning flip-flops decided to go barefoot - despite stepping on tiny sharp pebbles embedded in the mud, it no longer took ten seconds just to climb up one stair. No longer hampered by the mud, I plowed up the mountain with her and reached the stony summit. Strewn all over the place were more of those sharp pebbles, this time without any mud to cushion them - despite her feet hurting, my climbing partner did not don her filthy flip-flops until she had an opportunity to clean them off. Out in the distance, I could make out a large black monument, stained gray in my vision because of the fog, of a large mountain goat. (As expected, the pictures did not turn out.) I could spot a few members of the UD crew were along this same line of sight - they had to cross a rickety bridge to get over to this section of the mountain range. My wanderlust was taking a hold of me, so I left my climbing partner for a short while to get close to the edge of the mountain.
Teetering on the brink of death! I love it! To begin my daring journey, I poked about on some fingery protrusions of the mountain, taking utmost care with every step I walked. The ground here was still covered with those flaky-sharp pebbles - luckily for me, though, I was wearing decent enough shoes for climbing. I went to the tips of one of these stretches of stone and kneeled down at the very tip of it, knuckles white and clenching the stones for my dear life. The downward incline of this foot of the mountain was easily at least 75°, and were it not for my natural surefootedness I would have surely suffered the fifty-foot plunge down to the streamlet. The visitors to the mountains appeared tiny from this vantage in the fog - the fog was thicker near the top and relatively thin at the foot, so I could make out the slight shine of polyester raincoats and a few commands for controlling this two-way traffic, mumbled in universally understood terms. After this risky journey, I returned to the safety of my climbing partner, who I assisted down the mountain and back to the SUVs.
Beyond this trailblazing across new and strange terrains came the quintessential event to partake in an Arabian desert: yes, we drove into the interior of the country to go riding on camels. The grounds where the camels were kept were nothing out of the ordinary: it had that slight rank odor so reminiscent of a poorly-maintained zoo, and sand-coated balls of dung lined the path in various conditions, ranging from freshly prepared to sufficiently smudged. The camels made no attempt to hide their foul activities; they even had the audacity to do this while we were feebly attempting to get atop their high-set backs. With some assistance from the director, I was able to seat myself up on the camel, the largest in a caravan of three and whose name was Ra'd (رعد), the Arabic word for Thunder. With a signal from the driver of the caravan, the camel slowly lurched its way up on all fours, and we embarked into the great expanse of the desert.
My expectations for what riding a camel would be like were wildly shattered - I thought that sitting on a big lump of fat would be exceedingly difficult, but I could have easily ridden on it without holding on to the steel handlebar attached to the saddle (and indeed, I went hands-free for some stints). I was in a caravan with two other members from the UD crew, and our herd driver took us on a bumpy trek through this dune-filled stretch of desert - the only green things in sight were some trees in the far distance. I preferred to simply gaze off into the distance and enjoy the ride - it was not smooth by any means, but I had a strange sense of security sitting on the camel. More than anything, though, it was the vastness of the dunes that struck me - realizing that this was less than a fraction of the entire desert caused a wave of humility to pass through me.
The congregation of camels came to a stop too quickly for my tastes - despite my reluctance, I had to get off and obey the stubborn lazy camel for once. The caravan drivers made a noise between that of gurgling and growling, after which the camels ceased their bumbling forward and proceeded to lower themselves to the ground. First, they lowered their hind legs simultaneously while keeping their front legs erect (this happened suddenly enough to take me by surprise - I did not realize that I was nearly six feet off the ground until the camel made me smell reality), then they lowered their front legs and tucked them to their sides, knees bent. The group stretched their aching thighs and sauntered about in this depression between the dunes, until a masked man in blue came up riding a oaken-brown steed.
Oh, the joy I felt upon just seeing this stallion! Long has it been a goal of mine to ride a horse, and this mysterious figure and his partner, who followed soon after him, was offering to take us out on individual rides. I readily signed up for this, hoisting myself up on the stallion and securing my feet in the stirrups. Whatever excitement I had upon seeing these courser was immediately forgotten the instant it set foot with me on its back in front of its azure-clad owner. We bolted on into the desert, jarringly jostling up and down, up and down, and before only a few seconds I was able to catch this rhythm and move in sync with the horse. For those brief seconds, I felt completely at liberty, the sandy winds beating against my face and puffing up my clothes. Chills of excitement ran down my spine; I had never lived the experience of riding a horse before, yet the joy and intensity I felt atop its back was unlike anything else I had ever done.
After some last-minute stretching on two legs, it was finally time to head back to the four-legged beasts, who idly waited for us to savor our leisure time. This trip was not as relaxing as the ride into the interior since the camel to my right, Barack (بارك), use my stirrup-fastened leg to scratch its neck, against which my leg muscles were no match. Aside from this uneasy setback, I still had an enjoyable enough sojourn atop my camel. The walk back saw the camels scaling more dunes as well; I could feel the incline as they trudged up a small hill and accomodated for it by shifting my weight forward. We also had a few accidents; two of the more finicky camels threw their riders off, sending them slamming into the coarse sands. Despite a wrist injury from a misplaced camel foot, there was no permanent damage suffered by these two, and we went on as a merry group to delve into the country another day.
Ugh, I still have so much more to report, and so little time - we arrive back in the States in two days! This trip has really flown by - I hope to get at least two more entries done after this one, including a reflection on the whole journey which I will write after spending a few days in my native America.
Update: Six Months Later
Going about the usual routines of my life in America, it still amazes me that it was only six short months ago I was sleeping in a bed halfway across the world. While this might have seemed like an unnecessarily long pause, I wished to take this extended stint of time not only to reflect on the sensations that Tunisia left on me, but also how dramatically different the American experience has treated me post-Tunisia. Despite being a well-to-do economic haven in its particular geographic locale and adopting modern Western values regarding the treatment of women and education of children, which stands in stark contrast to what most Westerners themselves conceive a majority-Muslim nation to be, Tunisia must leap over great hurdles to solidify these fledging ideals and their economic prowess - in other words, they must still finalize the process of modernization. President Borguiba laid the seeds for this cultural turnaround over fifty years ago when he assumed executive rule of the nation after its independence from France, and my venture into the nation proved to be particularly fortuituous on account that I was witnessing the near-complete manifestation of these dreams envisioned so long ago.
While I still have a large amount of material to organize - including a final article describing my last day, which I will publish within the coming week.