On the road in Tunisia


        Our 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.

        Parking 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 the hill.

          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 visitors.

          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.

        During 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 another:

          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 Mauritania.

        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.

        On 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 tuna).

          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 were staying!

          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 live.

          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 closer attention.

          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 refreshing!