Same continent, different world


         Last Monday was a whirlwind of traveling, as I covered between 150 and 200 kilometers on public transportation, seeing some of the most highly regarded sites in all of Tunisia.

         My first leg of the journey was by train from Sousse to El Jem, site of the remains of a Roman coliseum that was built to support a crowd of 30,000 spectators. This building is the third largest of its kind in the world and was amazing to see and traipse through, up and down the stone steps, getting glimpses of the beautiful arches. Also in El Jem is a magnificent small museum with many restored mosaic floors, all beautifully displayed, depicting a wide variety of subjects, including sea life, important people of the time, and various Roman gods.

         From El Jem to Mahdia I made my debut on the very practical form of public transportation that is ubiquitous in Tunisia; it is called the louage (pronounced lwahj, with the last consonant sounding like the "s" in "pleasure"). There are louage stations in cities and towns of every size. The process is easy: just let somebody know where you are going, and you will be directed to the next vehicle headed there, from among all the vehicles in the garage (sometimes it is more like a parking lot). The larger stations have signs to indicate destinations; at the smaller stations, the workers there know which drivers are going where.

         The louages are large vans with seating for seven people. Like other places in Africa, they leave the stations only when they are full. Unlike other places, however, the definition of "full" means seven people for seven seats, not ten or more. Additionally, they filled up very quickly. During the entire day, I took five louage rides and never had to wait more than eleven minutes for a departure.

         In Mahdia, the louage station was on the outskirts of town, which meant that I needed to take a taxi in order to see the medina. This meant yet another effective form of transport - taxi collectif, which is a shared taxi in which each passenger pays only a portion of the total fare. Mahdia didn't have much to see - just another old medina in a seaside setting, but it was pleasant just the same, a relatively quiet town without a lot of tourist activity.

         After Mahdia, I went to Monastir, also on the coast, famous for its beaches as well as two spectacular structures: the seaside old fort that resembles a sand castle and the mausoleum of former President Habib Ibn Ali Bourguiba and his family. Monastir was the birthplace of this beloved president who served from 1957 to 1987. Every city in the country has a major street named after him. The mausoleum itself is richly appointed, with domes and towers, gold leaf, marble, and rich woods.

         The cost of my transport for the whole day was a very reasonable 10.350 dinars, about $8.28.

         From Monastir, it was back to Sousse so that I could spend my last night with my host Gaby. We went to dinner at a restaurant which features its own brewery. It's located in a city adjacent to Sousse - a new community, Port El Kantaoui, that was completed about eight years ago and has spacious plazas, cobble stoned streets, and architecture that reminded me of the California Mission style, with its emphasis on whitewashed stucco and balconies.

         On Tuesday morning I was off by train to Tunis, a two-hour ride, and had decided before I left there that for my last two nights I would upgrade myself to a nicer hotel. The hotel, the Golf Royal, is done up in a golfing theme, complete with golf clubs that serve as door handles at the main entry.

         I had two main activities in Tunis: stocking up on souvenirs to bring back to Mauritania and a visit to the Bardo Museum. It's always hard for me to know exactly what people will appreciate. I also don't want to load myself down with heavy and bulky items. I find that it is not easy to find items that meet all my criteria; they must be lightweight, useful, attractive, small, unbreakable, and reasonably priced. I made do with keychains, refrigerator magnets, small copper dishes, and halvah.

         On Thursday morning, just when I was making my last rounds of souvenir-shopping before going to lunch and the airport, I ran into Lisa, just back from Malta, who decided to head into town to walk around, rather than spend the day at the airport waiting for her connecting flight (as she had said she would do). She had a wonderful visit to Malta, and from the photos that I saw, I would love to go there.

         One of our PC medical officers is Tunisian and asked Lisa and me if we would be willing to bring packages for her from the old country. We arranged with her friend to meet us at the airport to give us the boxes. I was especially happy to do this because there have been so many people transporting things for me and I have not had any chance to try and balance out the equation.

         When I went through the security check, the x-ray machine detected some articles that the guard wanted to confiscate: a small pair of scissors, cuticle cutters, the metal fork that is part of a travel cutlery set, and a corkscrew. I didn't care about the corkscrew, but did not want to give up the other items, so I went back to the registration counter to check the bag. It appears that traveling exclusively with carry-on luggage is going to be history for me now!

         Right after checking in for my flight, I received a parting gift from Tunisia: an attack of diarrhea. Other than that, I have been feeling fine, and I very much enjoyed my trip. It's hard to believe that Tunisia is on the same continent as the four other African countries I have seen! I don't foresee myself living here for any reason, but if I did have to choose a country in which to live in Africa, Tunisia is the only one that I would consider.

           Re-entry to life at "home" was fairly easy - including a heavy new dose of getting used to the way things (don't) work around here, as everything continues to be run on West Africa International Time ("WAIT"). My first stop from the airport was the ATM at the bank, where I had to withdraw enough money to pay my rent - something that I could not do before I left because the new deposits of our Peace Corps living allowances had not yet been made into our accounts. That should have been an easy task, except for the fact that the ATM didn't have any money in it, and it was the beginning of a weekend, so I had to wait until the bank opened on Sunday.

         Lisa was anxious to get back to Nouadhibou, and was planning to take a flight on Saturday, but the airline that flies on Saturday has only one plane, and it was out of service. The other airline flies on Sunday, but those flights were full, which meant having to get a ticket for Monday. But when she went to the travel agent to do that, the computers were not working, which necessitated a trip to the airline office itself.

         On Sunday morning, as we headed to the bank and the various places to try to get Lisa's ticket, I was hopeful that the ATM would be in working order, but it wasn't yet. People at the bank normally don't wait in orderly lines here, so it meant waiting behind a cluster of more than twenty men at the teller's window - something I wanted to avoid by getting my ATM card in the first place.

         Good thing Lisa was with me, though, as women are not expected to wait for service here. I tore up the check that I had written to myself and rewrote one to her. She took it, politely made her way through the mass, and had the money in just a few minutes.

         We have a new Fulbright scholar here who asked Lisa how long it takes to get to Nouadhibou. I had to laugh at her reply: "Four days, apparently."

         Over the weekend, PCV Janine came back to Mauritania after her visit to the USA, and made her debut as an overnight guest at Château Jay. Her mom, Donna, is a regular reader of my weekly website postings and sent Janine back here with some kosher vegetarian food - quite unexpected, as well as appreciated! It's so nice to be experiencing the support of the families of other Volunteers!

           As I left for the trip, I finished reading The Road Unseen by Peter and Barbara Jenkins. Several years ago, I read Peter's first book, A Walk Across America, and enjoyed it. The focus of this later book, writing about the "unseen" road, is the faith that the Jenkins experienced, not only during their walk but in their religious, family and home life that followed when the trip was over.

           I was happy to see on a map before I left that there was a used bookstore in Tunis. That being the case, I didn't bring a lot of reading material with me, choosing instead to have faith that I would find something of interest. It was a very small "store" - more like a walk-in closet posing as a store front - and they had only about a hundred or so books written in English. Not only did I find two books that I wanted to read, but these volumes were curiously related to each other, the topics being two men whose names are synonymous with "hotel" in both the United States and internationally: Hilton and Marriott. (What are the odds that both books would be in the same used book store?)

          Be My Guest is the autobiography of Conrad Hilton. I found it fascinating to read how his business life unfolded, from taking over the management of a hotel, onward to renovating faded hotels, building new ones, and expanding from his original sites in Texas.

          Marriott: The J. Willard Marriott Story by Robert O'Brien traces a parallel evolution during roughly the same period of time as Hilton, including the Depression and World Wars, from the Marriott family's original nine-stool root beer stand in Washington, D.C. to the current international enterprise as it exists today.

         Both Hilton and Marriott believed in hard work, had strong religious beliefs, expressed concern about the proper training and treatment of their employees, and wanted to give good value and service to the American people.

          The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz was a book that I reread in Tunisia. I had read it for the first time last year on Yom Kippur and brought it with me so that I could do the same this year - not only for the sage advice that it offers but because it was a gift from my loving sister-in-law Anne and, therefore, a wonderful connection to family.