A Small Adventure;
15.09.2007 38 °C
"This is Africa"; the sun always brighter, the scenery ever changing and the people so diverse. It's hard not to fall in love with it, and I'm beginning to get the feeling I have.
From the moment I stepped off the flight and felt the warm Saharan wind almost send my passport flying from my hand; memories of Morocco came flooding back, but this wasn't Morocco, this was Tunisia.
After almost 5 months of living in touristic Europe I reached Barcelona with an 'I'm completely over this' attitude, the crowded streets, the Irish pubs and the flyers renting scooters saying 'see Barcelona like a local'. I needed to get out, somewhere different, and with 59 euro return flights, Tunisia was the call.
I had planned to bus up to the town of Bizerte on the North East coast, but with Ramadan having started the day before everything was a bit out of schedule and I was informed by one of the 20 machine gun wielding police officers that my only hope was a taxi and with 50 Tunisian Dinar (30 Euro) being the best offer I decided to give it a miss and opt for the 10 Dinar trip to Tunis centre in a taxi that had to be push started by the drivers three mates.
Lonely planet said the airport trip to town should cost 4 - 7 Dinar, so when the unmetered taxi stopped at town and I gave him 10 TD, I knew I was giving a fair tip and waited for a smile and thankyou, but instead recieved;
"10 Dinar, thats good for you."
Shocked, I smiled and replied;
"It's good for both of us."
He looked me in the eye firmly;
"No it's good for you."
Talk about great first impressions of a country.
At this point all I wanted to do was check into my hotel.
I had made brief back up plans for Tunis had a couple of hostels in mind. For 15 Dinar I got my little piece of paradise, two single beds, there were no single rooms, a sink and few friendly looking bed bugs. Lucky I had my trusty Mountain Designs sheet to block out the little black buggers. I opened the blue shutters to check the view to be lucky enough to catch the African sun setting over the Tunis medina.
Saturday morning dawned and I woke to my favourite arab alarm clock, "Allah Prayers" at 5:30am, and with the medina speakers just outside my window there was no way I was sleeping through it.
It was still dark and about 30 degrees; so I decided to make for an early start.
Backpack ready I started walking to the Tunis northern bus hub, Bab Saoun, and whilst it was a good 5km away I thought it best to walkto avoid another taxi rip off. An hour later and with a t-shirt full of sweat, I'd made it.
Louages are often the cheapest and fastesy way to get between cities and towns in Tunisia. Hundreds of the red striped nine seater vans pack into a parking bay, with the drivers wandering around outside yelling their van's destination. I approached Mr 'Bizerte' and with a nod of my head I was being loaded into the van. The driver won't leave until the van is full, so how fast you get there really depends on how many people are heading where you are. They are super cheap, 3.95 TD for the hour trip to Bizerte, instead of the 50 TD I was offered the night before.
It was Ramadan and all muslims are prohibited to eat or drink (even water) between sunrise and sunset, this is a hard task for someone carrying 25kg worth of baggage across a country in 38 degree heat. Unsure if me eating and drinking would cause anyone to take offence, I crouched in the back of the van secretley eqting some biscuits and drinking a bit of water.
On arrival at the Bizerte bus port a group of Arabic middle aged men sitting across the road were pointing and laughing in my direction. Being the only westerner in sight I was sure the were just amusing themselves with the usual 'White Englishman' jokes. Then the oldest of them walked over to me, grabbed both sides of my belt, yanked my pants up and accompanied by the laughter of his mates told me in his best French that;
" I looked like an absolute idiot with them so low. " I laughed, made a 'west-side' sign with my hand and told them;
"It was fashion!" We all laughed and the same old man pointed towards the town centre and helped fend off the seagull like taxi drivers that pounce on you the moment you step out of any mode of transport with bags and a European look on your face.
Beautiful Bizerte is an enchanting place,
Eucalyptus trees brought over by the French line the new port banks and the towns surrounding beaches whilst the still glassy water of the towns old port reflect the Cuban like colours of it's surrounding houses.
Small brightly coloured fishing boats fill the tiny port;
Children play alongside their boats;
Whilst the fortified walls of the towns medina run along it's side.
However it isn't until the sun slowly fades behind the medina's stone walls that the port's true beauty begins to show.
Ramadan can be both a challenging and exciting time to visit Islamic towns like Bizerte. With tourism almost non existant it is impossible to find a cafe or restaurant that opens before 7:30pm, when a small firwork indicates an end to the day's fasting. You almost have to go on the fast yourself unless you stock up on fruit and biscuits from the market, sneaking away to your hotel room throughout the day for a quick snack. (Something I can't deny doing.)
After the sun goes down the streets come alive; cafes fill, stores open, the shishas come out and it usually stays that way until about 3 or 4 am. So in actual fact, with everyone usually sleeping in till at least mid day, Ramadan could be seen as not a fast, but just a month where everyone in the arab world goes nocturnal, sleeping by day and living by night.
Becoming lost in medinas has definitely become a favoured pastime, the narrow stone passages hide the real Tunisian way of life. Children dart in and out from behind large wooden doors, trying to get a look at the scruffy haired western man wandering around their town, whilst cats fill almost every alley;
Scouring through rubbish, staring up curiously at passers by.
Whilst leaving the medina I was approached by a tall Arabic man, who began to guess my nationality. After about 15 guesses he said New Zealand, I thought he was close enough and told him I was Australian. He started passionately talking to me about the Koran, with a free afternoon and being slightly curous about Islam I walked and talked with him for over 4 hours. Never in all of my life have I been more preached to. In an attempt to convert me to Islam he recited me stories from the Koran, told me women have more rights in the Muslim world than in the West, gave me atleast a hundred reasons why everything good about the 'West' originates from Islam, pointed out that Israel was 'created by America to divide Africa from the East' and then invited me round for dinner and offered me his sisters room at his parents house to crash for the night. With the 4 hour conversation having completely satisfied my curiosity and no longer having a free afternoon I told him thanks for the offer and with a small amount of relief caught the next taxi back to my hotel 'Hotel De la Plage' for a few biscuits.
Pool halls are a great way to both meet local teenagers and pass away the Ramadan nights; Arabic teens are great to talk to, religion is rarely a subject as they would much rather spend there time debating over which is the better soccer team Madrid or Barcelona?
I decided that explaining them 'I wasn't a soccer fan and actually followed a team called Collingwood in the Australian Football League' would be just to complicated, and had a stab in the dark and said Madrid. I was instantly greeted with smiles all round; so I'd obviously made the right choice and some sweet games of pool followed to end the night;
Garrett in Bizerte; Tunisia.