first stop once we left Tunis was Bizerte (rhymes with
"dessert"). We especially enjoyed this small seaside city because
of its lack of tourism, which gave us an opportunity to observe the
day-to-day life of typical Tunisians, without seeing that the store
displays and trinkets for sale were being arranged for our benefit. All the
other people at our hotel were from within Tunisia or the other nearby
countries of Algeria and Morocco. There wasn't much to do in the town, but
we somehow managed to fill our days.
has been very easy here, as the streets are not choked with vehicles. There
are also no signs to indicate where cars can and cannot park. Pull up and
park - it's that simple. But it is also a little disconcerting to us former
city dwellers from places where there are numerous reasons why a car may be
ticketed or towed away: street sweeping, nonpayment of parking fee,
business zone, etc. Our favorite sight, as we got ready to load up the car
and leave Bizerte, was that of three street vendors who had set up shop on
all but the sidewalk side of the vehicle, which meant that we were blocked
in by enterprise and had to interrupt their sales in order to get out.
Our next town was in the
far west of the north coast, named Tabarka, fairly close to the border with
Algeria. There are more tourists here, and the town is a bit more scrubbed
up. The morning before we left, we hiked up to the kasbah, the citadel that
overlooks the city. We couldn't enter, as there were repairs going on, but
we did get a good view of the city and the surrounding area from the top of
It was in Tabarka that we made the next culinary discovery that was to
become a staple for the coming week: the chapatti, a round flat bread from
India, about an inch thick, which is used to make a large variety of sandwiches.
Most of my sandwiches have been made with fried egg, onion, spices (getting
much approval from the Tunisians for my willingness to eat lots of the
spicy harissa), tomatoes, lettuce, and whatever else is available.
On Wednesday, we went through the mountainous area adjacent to Tabarka and
then headed south to Le Kef. Each of us was curious to see what Le Kef
looks like because it is the town where our current Country Director was
living when he was a PCV in Tunisia during the nineties. He warned us,
"Don't tease me about it," and we couldn't think of any reasons
why we should NOT tease him about it, as it is a town sitting majestically
on a mesa above a verdant plateau, with beautiful mountains in the distance
and lots of markets, amenities, and other delights.
Once we left the mountains, the area reminded me of the Napa Valley with
its brown foothills in the distance and the two-laned road lined with
eucalyptus trees. Tunisia has a grape-growing region for production of wine,
but this is not that area. Rather, most of these fields were planted with
groves of olive trees.
The map of Le Kef in the
guidebook showed that it has a synagogue, so I went off to find it. It was
closed when I got there, but I managed to draw a small crowd around me, as
people started to ask, "Synagogue?" I could see from the guest
book that I eventually signed that they get a small but steady trickle of
While I was waiting to get into the building, I chatted with a man who came
up to me from the street. I asked him if he worked for the synagogue. He
said no, that he was a police officer - something I would not have known
since he was wearing street clothes. He explained his existence there
without my asking: "There are stupid people in this world."
The policeman and two guardians accompanied me inside the small, tidy, and
unadorned shul. I asked if I could take pictures and they told me I was not
permitted to do so. The walls were hung with memorial plaques and the doors
of the ark were open to reveal two partially unrolled torahs. The officer
invited me to touch one of the scrolls, which he explained was made of cow
skin. I declined doing that, explaining to him that it was not proper to
touch the scroll with one's hand.
our night in Le Kef, I experienced the coldest indoor temperatures since I
left home: 65 degrees. Sleeping under a blanket was nice!
From Le Kef, we drove to Kairouan with its UNESCO World Heritage Site medina.
This city is famous for its carpets. I am not in the market for one, but
that did not stop any of the salesmen from entreating me to show me their
wares. "Just look. No buy," they explained. And so I just looked.
But that didn't stop them from trying to sell. They all went to the same
business school, so the salesmanship did not vary from one store to
Unrolling two rugs, each salesman asked which color I preferred. I was not
going to get hooked, so I said I liked them both. Then they wanted to know
if I wanted a larger or smaller size. I told them that size did not matter,
as I didn't want a rug at all. "And what color do you want to
see?" No special color, I demurred. One of the salesmen told me,
"I prefer blue. How about you?" I told him yes, that I liked
blue, and all the other colors as well.
Our Kairouan hotel was fine
in all respects, except for the fact that there was no hot water for
showers, something that they told us when we checked in. At eight dinars
per person ($6.40), breakfast included, it was hard to beat the price.
Fortunately, there was a men's hammam (public bath house) next door,
which gave me the opportunity to take advantage of this experience. The
cost of the hammam itself is 1.2 dinars. For a massage to be
included, the price was 3 (equal to about $2.40), and I knew that that
would be the cheapest massage I'll ever get.
The day before I had purchased a body-scrubber that is used in hammams -
a rough piece of fabric, almost like carpeting, that fits over the hand. In
actuality, when the masseur uses it, it feels like he is using an oven mitt
made of Scotch-Brite pads that are most commonly used for scrubbing pots.
While he was working his magic over my body, the scraping felt so harsh that
I was surprised to see he had not drawn blood. While he didn't remove the
top layers of skin, as I thought he had done, he did remove something,
as he occasionally showed me the rolled up layers of dirty skin that he had
exfoliated. The massage is not the gentle warm-and-fuzzy nurturing variety.
There is no massage table; we are sitting or lying on the marble floor. The
masseur twists and tortures the limbs, pressing the body into the
unyielding slabs, with no cushioning underneath. I was pleased that at the
completion of the job, he had not managed to crack or break any of my ribs.
From the inland city of
Kairouan, we headed east to the coast, where our next destination was
Sousse, a very popular seaside resort town of 250,000. The tourist
influence is strong in Sousse, and there are many businesses to attract
them: Seville Shopping Center, Las Vegas Shopping, Rose and Crown English
Pub, O'Connor's Irish Pub, Miami Center, etc. The medina is another of the
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Tunisia, and it has its charm, its
passageways and narrow lanes that ramble among ancient buildings festooned
as they are with T-shirts, postcards, and other knickknacks.
Sousse was the spot where, on Saturday morning, I parted company with Lisa,
Chris, and Erin. Lisa was off to Malta for a few days to see a friend
living there, while Erin and Chris were going to Nice, to continue their
COS trip. Lisa and I will meet at the airport in Tunis for the trip back to
Once I got settled in my
own place in Nouakchott, I joined the online Hospitality Club
(www.hospitalityclub.org), where I have so far been a one-time host, to a
couple from Poland. Through the website, I was able to find a few hosts in
Tunisia, one of whom lives in Sousse. Gabriele is a German who has lived in
Tunis for six years now. She makes her living by providing cultural tours
to the many tourists who visit from Europe.
Gaby lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Sousse and also has two apartments
in another building. Her friends Bachir and Mahmoud, two brothers-in-law
visiting from Libya, stayed in one of the apartments. I was given a studio
to myself in the same building with Bachir and Mahmoud.
Saturday evening, Gaby, Bachir, Mahmoud, and I went to the home of Khader
and Lemia, where we spent the evening eating, drinking, and conversing
outside. Khader has lived in Germany for sixteen years, so he speaks
excellent German, as well as French. Bachir and Mahmoud prefer to converse
in English, as they say that their French is not as good.
Beer, wine, and whisky flowed in abundance. I asked Bachir and Mahmoud if
it was as plentiful in Libya and they told me that it is available, but not
easily. Bachir said that they have a saying in Libya, "When you are
thirsty, go to Tunis."
This was my first Tunisian meal outside of a restaurant, so I was curious
to see what the eating habits are. The table was set with about half a
dozen different bowls of food and either two tablespoons or a tablespoon
and a fork in each bowl. There was macaroni with chicken, a lentil dish, a
variety of nuts, fish with french fries, and a local food called brik,
which can be stuffed with a variety of items (in this case, potatoes and
Our hostess Lemia pointed to the table, inviteing me to eat, but I was
stumped. There were no individual plates to which food could be
transferred, nor were there personal spoons or forks. What was I supposed
to do? Not wanting to make a faux pas, I thanked her and said that I would
eat in a few minutes. This bought me some time so that I could observe the
others, to follow their example of how to proceed.
What people did was pick up a spoon or fork from the "serving
dishes," use it to eat some of the food from the communal dish, and
then return the it to the place where they had originally found it. Anyone
eating the same dish would then use the spoon or fork that had been in the
mouths of the other people who had preceded them. In Mauritania, I have
gotten used to eating with no spoon in some households. But having
everyone eat with the same spoon? I'm still not comfortable doing
that! In fact at one point, Mahmoud dropped a fork onto the patio. Not to
worry - he simply picked it up and returned it to the bowl where it had
been in the first place, without so much as a quick wipe to make sure that
it was cleaned up.
All of this means that I am not what the other PCVs call "integrated"
- doing as the locals do, with regard to food and drink. So be it. I would
rather be healthy than "integrated."
Since I knew that we were going to go out to visit people for dinner, I
took the same precaution that I usually take when it comes to the
possibility of either eating too late or being served food that I may not
want to eat: late in the afternoon, I took a walk and found a chapatti to
eat on my own. This way, I was able to avoid the possibility of going
hungry for the evening. Considering the added hygiene issue, it was just as
well. When anyone remarked that I had not eaten much, all I said was that I
had a late lunch and didn't feel very hungry at the moment, but I would eat
something later on.
Khader, host for the evening, works as a tour guide. He told me that he had
a space available on a tour that he was beginning on Sunday morning, and he
invited me to go with the group. It was to be an all-day tour of nomadic
villages in the area. I accepted the invitation and was looking forward to
it. There were to be seven vehicles transporting the tour group. He called
the driver who spoke the best English and told him to save the front seat
for me. Not only did the driver say that he would do that, but he soon
showed up at Khader's house to introduce himself to me. We arranged to meet
in front of the house where I was staying at 8:15 the following morning.
When it got to be after 10:00 PM, I was ready to sleep. I didn't want Gaby
or any of the others - all nocturnal people - to interrupt their evening by
taking me back to the studio, so I took a taxi there myself. Gaby said she
would see me the next day after my tour, since it was going to be
Sunday morning and she'd be sleeping late. Bachir said that he would be up
at about 6:00 to make coffee. Khader reminded me that he'd have the driver
pick me up in front of Gaby's house at 8:15.
Sunday morning came, and I was up at 6:00, as usual. By 7:00, I did not see
or hear Bachir stirring, and it became evident that if I was going to have
anything to eat for breakfast, I'd be best off finding it myself, so I took
a walk to the nearby business district and had something to eat.
I was back at the house by about 7:45, and still nobody else was awake.
There seemed to be at least four apartments in the building, and I realized
that the day before I had never found out in which one Bachir and Mahmoud
A little after 8:00, I walked to the front of the building to wait for the
driver. I waited and waited, but nobody showed up. Of the options available
to me, none seemed to be the "best possible choice." First of
all, I could have gone to a public phone shop to call Gaby, but I ruled
that out since she had said she was planning on sleeping late that morning.
I could see that Bachir's car was in front of the house, but I couldn't go
looking for him since I didn't want to knock indiscriminately on doors. By
9:00, there was still no sign of Bachir, Mahmoud, Gaby, or Khader's driver.
Do I just give up and walk away to begin my day (the "impatient
Westerner" choice) or stay in front of the house and wait for somebody
who may never show up (the "stupid tourist" choice)? I decided to
strike out on my own. There was no way anyone could contact me to let me
know what had happened. And as inviting an offer as it was to be able to go
on the tour, I was just as happy to be independent and fend for myself.
I later found out that one of Khader's employees had miscounted the number
of people on the tour, and they didn't have an empty seat for me after all.
Khader had called Gaby at 8:00 in the morning to tell her this, but her
phone was in a room other than the one where she was sleeping, so she did
not get the call.
I didn't get very far that
day, preferring to walk around Sousse on my own. The experience of one man
walking around a city on his own is different from that of being part of a
group. I started to notice that I was being approached by strangers more
frequently that I was when I was walking around with Lisa, Erin, and Chris.
It was time to keep my guard up and apply my "Good Guy/Bad Guy
Test" as I encountered people. Bad Guys are fairly easy to spot. They
belong to an international fraternity, through which they all follow the
same rules, more or less:
Bad Guys are most prevalent where they have easy access to their favorite
prey, the foreign tourist. Therefore, it is most likely that they will be
congregating in touristed areas, rather than neighborhoods where the locals
A Bad Guy is very frequently the first to say hello. He wants to capture
your attention and is impatient for you to make the first move. He will
offer his help before you ask for it. Furthermore, he will be not only polite,
but excessively polite - the Eddie Haskell Syndrome.
Once engaged in conversation, the Bad Guy is very interested in knowing
where you are staying. The best response for him is the name of your hotel.
The worst is that you are staying in the home of nationals of the country
where you are visiting.
The Bad Guy wants you to know as soon as possible that you are now friends,
brothers, or in some other kind of close relationship for which you have an
entirely different definition. Now that you are in this relationship, he
will lose no time in telling you that you can trust him. If you hesitate,
he may even ask you, "Don't you trust me?"
To fortify his position as a Good Guy, the Bad Guy will warn you that there
are Bad Guys in the area, and that you should be very careful. He will
explain to you that it is a good thing you found him, and not one of the
Bad Guys instead.
If you have begun talking with the Bad Guy, you can check on his status by
asking if you may take his picture. Bad Guys will not want you to have
their picture. Of course, there are many reasons why a person may not want
his picture taken; just because he doesn't want you to take it doesn't mean
that he is a Bad Guy, but this is a red flag that indicates you need to pay
In addition to not wanting you to have his picture, the Bad Guy will
decline giving you any other information that can lead to your ability to
trace him. This may include his place of work, home, or cell phone number.
He will have multiple reasons for not giving you any of these. Conversely,
the chances that you have found a Good Guy are increased if he accompanies
you to his place of work or home.
With all of this fresh in my mind, I set about to walk through the medina
in Sousse. First I had to have something to eat, and I chose a chapatti. I
was just beginning to eat mine when I noticed that a young man sat down
near me on the same retaining wall that surrounded a palm tree. I ate, he
ate, and he said nothing.
It was a good five minutes before we exchanged glances and hellos. All of
my indications were that I had a Good Guy sitting there. His name was
Chaker and he was off to work at a bookstore, having just picked up a stack
of magazines from a distributor. I applied several of my test points to get
a better reading as to whether he was a Good or Bad Guy: I took his picture
and then, when we were finished with our chapattis, I asked him to show me
where he worked. He willingly complied to both requests, as well as
offering me his e-mail address and phone number.
Later in the day, after I had toured around, I called him and we went
together for a cold drink. During our conversation, Chaker asked me if I
was a Catholic. I told him that I am not. He was quite surprised to find
out that I am Jewish, and told me that I was the first Jewish person he had
ever spoken to.
We went on our separate ways and I returned to the building where Mahmoud,
Bachir, and I were staying. I found out that Bachir had been quite ill that
day and that Gaby had called a doctor who was going to be coming by soon.
Dr.Naas was very helpful to Bachir and was also curious about me, as are
most Tunisians who find out that I am an American. He was curious to know
where my ancestors came from. I told him that they were from Poland and the
Ukraine. He asked me where in the Ukraine they were from and I told him
Odessa. "So, you are Jewish?" he asked.
Yes, I told him. He informed me that he had done his medical studies in
Odessa, and that his best teachers and most of his friends were Jewish. He
asked me if I had ever been there, to which I told him that I had not, but
I would like to go some day, Inshallah. "When you go, take me with you.
I have a friend on every street in Odessa," he said.
This part of the world is
famous for not having toilet paper. The Mauritania solution is to provide a
plastic bottle or kettle of water (locally called a makaresh, but
known by PCVs as a "butt pot"). Tunisia, being more developed and
with a longer history of indoor plumbing, has taken the cleaning problem to
a new level. Next to most toilets, both public and private, is a handle for
turning on water that shoots out of a hose that is attached to the wall.
It's a very effective system, made even more so by the fact that the water
pressure increases to a level that rivals any power washer. Curiously