A much visited small country sandwiched between two giant enigmas, our relatively well informed build up to Tunisia was in complete contrast to our blank-canvas introduction to Algeria.
Whilst neither of us had previously been to Tunisia we had heard plenty of personal accounts from people who had (admittedly nearly all prior to the 2010-11 revolution) and with all this second hand background information – and therefore some idea of what to expect – it was difficult to approach Tunisia with a fully open mind.
Crossing the border near Tabarka is liberatingly straightforward after the numerous policemen and mosquitoes that had characterised our last 24 hours in Algeria.
We sit down to a delicious al fresco lunch in the sun, chat away in English to a friendly waiter, and feel like we’re on holiday. For a while it’s very nice.
We head for Tunis to meet friends from home who are visiting for Easter, driving on roads with few speed bumps through stunning scenery both along the Mediterranean coastline and inland, parts of which could almost be the rolling hills of the Cotswolds.
As we drive the atmosphere feels slightly colder with people staring and occasionally wolf whistling but (with the larger than life exception of the guy at the service station pumps) not many smiling or waving – despite our best efforts to look friendly.
Arriving in the capital we initially find people to be a lot less open than in Algeria, except around the beautiful but touristy Sidi Bou Said and Tunis medina where the street vendors are effusive in their welcome but swiftly lose interest when it becomes clear that we aren’t going to buy anything. As we’d been told, people frequently try to short-change us and almost always quote exorbitant prices in the first instance.
It’s an awkward juxtaposition – on the one hand so easy and laid back (comfortably sitting on the beach in bikinis for example) whilst on the other feeling a bit like we have dollar signs tattooed on our foreheads. Some of what we’d previously heard about Tunisia from other people seem to be being corroborated. ‘Being on holiday’ is starting to get a bit stifling.
No self respecting Tunisian car is without a banging stereo system, so – given that Landy is now lined with the wonderful sound absorbing Moroccan cork and we can hear ourselves think – we decide we could do with some music. We find the auto repairs in the backstreets of Tunis and enter one of many quirky-looking little stores to see what we can find. We are back off the tourist trail, back on mission, back to our usual ‘weird’ behaviour that awakens people’s curiosity – and suddenly everything changes.
Buying our music system from the two guys in the shop feels like our first real ‘person to person’ interaction in Tunisia (as opposed to ‘vendor to tourist’) and all four of us really enjoy discussing the type of amp and size of speakers required to turn Landy into a mobile jukebox (we go for the bigger speakers). It is also a refreshingly practical conversation based entirely upon the best way to set about the job in hand – an interesting contrast to the chauvinistic response we’d had in the UK when the owner of the Colchester car radio shop took one look at us and declared that it would be ‘absolutely impossible’ for us to wire up the sound system by ourselves.
As we are paying we spot a twinkling gem of a gear stick knob on one of the cluttered shelves looking a bit like a blinged up R2D2 and on closer inspection we see it is priced at the exact number of Dinars that remain in our combined wallets…it’s fate – as well as a fitting emblem of Tunisia, home of Star Wars – and we can’t resist. We leave in high spirits with our purchases…and a bonus in the form of a pink Hello Kitty air freshener presented to us for good luck.
The other mission we have set ourselves is to buy a headrest for Landy’s middle seat in preparation for having a guide with us during our time in Libya – which is fast approaching. The ‘car graveyard’ industrial area is a short taxi ride away and this experience is also fun with our taxi driver enjoying hearing all about our car and our journey and getting really involved in bargaining down the price of the headrest on our behalf. We’re stepping just slightly off the beaten track and already Tunis feels like a completely different city.
Our CouchSurfing friends in Algiers have put us in touch with one of their friends in Tunis – Amine, a lovely guy in his fifth year of medical school – so we arrange to meet up.
One of the things we are loving about life on this trip is the sheer spontaneity of events: meeting Amine through an email introduction leads to a tour of Carthage and an explanation of its history, chilling out in a cool cosmopolitan café drinking lemon juice with almonds floating in it (yum), a fleeting visit to his parents’ house – who aren’t expecting us but immediately produce fresh orange juice and pastries – and then on to a birthday party where we hang out until nearly 3.00am culminating in a humiliating 3-0 defeat for the England football team (AKA Lucy) to Tunisia (alias Seif) on his games console.
It’s a great party and we are immediately catapulted into a network of young and enterprising Tunisians, open minded and fun and keen to show us the very best of their country. We all meet up a couple of days later on a central hotel rooftop terrace, heading to an old communist bar afterwards. It’s a great opportunity to exchange ideas and to get to know this entrepreneurial group a bit better, especially as they all speak perfect English. They are each doing something different and something exciting – for example we meet a computer programmer passionate about getting kids to think by teaching them to code and to create their own robots and computer games.
We meet Imen who invites us to stay for a couple of nights in her apartment. Moving there we are welcomed with a bowl of strawberries and the next day’s breakfast laid out for us when we go to bed. Imen’s apartment is the perfect place to catch up on admin, to upload photos to our website and to do a much needed load of washing.
We take a couple of hours out to visit a hammam which is wonderfully relaxing until the receptionist rushes in with a mobile phone, hauling Lucy from the hammam into the changing room area practically naked and covered in clay to discuss a potential TV appearance.
The two of us go to the cinema to see a Tunisian documentary made post revolution, Le Challat de Tunis, about a man who had been cruising around on a motorbike slashing the bottoms of scantily dressed women in the early 2000s. It raises some thought-provoking themes: what’s acceptable women’s clothing, government cover ups, and violent computer games to name but a few. It is cleverly filmed, hysterically funny in places often making us cringe at the same time. We think it excellent but some of our friends say they’ve deliberately avoided seeing it as they have not wanted to be reminded of the issues it broaches.
On our last night in Tunis a bunch of CouchSurfers meet at Imen’s house to discuss strategies for attracting alternative tourism to Tunisia, energetically combining their wish to demonstrate the beauty and potential of their country to foreigners with proactive ideas about how to improve their economy. We’re very happy to be their guinea pigs and their advice really helps us figure out how to maximise the remaining days we have left in Tunisia. We are also given contacts for friends in Libya and Egypt – just as in Algeria, the CouchSurfing community here is getting the ball rolling and rallying around to help.
We receive this message via our website:
We are the WD-40 representative in Tunisia. If you need some (as well as duct tape, and lots of other useful stuff) let us know we will be more than happy to help you out!! Have a safe trip and again welcome to our country!!
Who could say no to that? We are leaving Tunis the following day so arrange to meet Samy and his wife Olfa on our way out of town, spending a fascinating morning with them (and their eldest son who is keen to meet Landy) and eating a sensational breakfast – eventually dragging ourselves away to the south of Tunisia fully stocked up with useful WD-40 products.
The green verdant countryside grows paler and dustier as we drive south roughly parallel to the curving Mediterranean coast in the direction of the desert, the olive trees growing further apart reflecting the dryer nature of the landscape. Once off the motorway things become much more interesting as we snatch glimpses of everyday life in the small Tunisian towns.
Butchers are hanging their wares out in the road for passing customers to see, often including a camel’s head to indicate the age of the camel meat being sold, and fairly frequently we see the separated skins and bodies of sheep hanging up with their living relations tied to the fence immediately beneath. A lot of butchers have barbecues going by the roadside selling chargrilled meat that is cut to order from the hanging carcasses.
Other small stalls are set up selling bread, fruit, spices, pottery, rugs and thousands of jerry cans of fuel imported from Libya.
There are plenty of live camels, sheep and goats to be seen in the desert too, their herders wrapped tightly against the sand that blows across the road looking exactly the same as the camels, sheep, goats and herders of the past few millennia…although we bet the herders now have the latest smartphones in their pockets.
We reach Matmata in the late evening and end up staying there for three nights, in a hotel of caves once occupied by Troglodytes. We work on the car, fitting the headrest, the gear knob, and an additional lock, and at last get round to mounting the big overflow drain pipes full of rolled up canvas into the roof space, having had them rolling about in the back since we left England.
Local carpenters Ibrahim and Mohammed carve some gorgeous wooden supports for our speakers and make a box to house the amp, Ahmed at the ironmongery supplies bolts to secure it in place and delicious fresh almonds still in their jaw-breaking green pods.
We do the wiring, drill holes in the roof and apply liberal quantities of silicone – everyone getting excited when the air is finally filled with the sound of Tunisian radio.
Matmata is stunningly located in the mountains, close to the gateway to the desert. Several films have been made in the surrounding countryside – both foreign and Tunisian – so they’ve put Hollywood style signs in Arabic, French and English on the hills as you approach the town. There are many people here reliant on tourism for their livelihood: from the boys showing off their chameleons and the guys riding around on motorbikes with hawks on their handlebars, to the men selling souvenirs and sheepskins. On the first morning we are definitely considered fair game for everyone trying to sell things but after about half a day watching us work any hassle evaporates and we are free to get on with things.
We watch an intriguing interaction play out between a local with his camel and a bus load of French tourists who we’ve seen taking photos of the camel. The owner goes over to them asking for payment at which point the tourists refuse, rushing back to their bus whilst denying they’ve taken any pictures and the bus drives off leaving the camel owner shouting and swearing in its wake.
(Apart from the obvious lying about taking photos) it is a difficult one to take sides on…we don’t really like the practice of paying for photographs – which after all don’t cost the subject anything to allow and if everybody charged for them it would add a real complexity to travelling – but it would have been polite to ask permission. And whilst it doesn’t cost the man any money per picture he has clearly dressed himself and his camel up on purpose to attract photographers in order to make a living from it and is now being deprived of this. We don’t know what to conclude.
Once we’ve lost our ‘fair game for touts’ status life becomes a lot easier and we’re able to leave our stuff around in safety knowing that it will be looked after – which is convenient as we’ve emptied the entire boot into the parking area.
The people working at the hotel – Ibrahim, Ahmed, Habib, Mahrzia, Ferjani, Mohamed, Hossein, Hamed, Hafaid and Abdul-Hanin – bring us free coffee and lunch and enjoy watching us work, helping whenever we let them. At the end of the day one of them comes out with a classic: ‘Wow – if this is what British women can do, what must your men be like?!’. We won’t quote Anne-Laure’s response.
Supper on the second night is noticeably nicer than the previous night’s meal – which had been fine but nothing special – and by the third night we are quietly ushered into a separate room to disguise the fact that our supper is clearly so much better than everybody else’s. At breakfast on the final day we are presented with a delicious loaf of traditional bread baked in the village rather than the standard rather bland baguette.
We had arrived in Matmata as tourists, but leave three days later as friends.
To Ksar Ghilane
Leaving Matmata we spend most of the day on dirt tracks, off-roading for the first time as we head for the Sahara. The scenery develops into a proper desert-scape scattered with oases, camels and goats.
We stop in a small town to ask directions, asking a man in café the way to Ksar Ghilane, and then drive on. Fifteen minutes later it seems a crazy driver is on our tail – overtaking, stopping, waving, flashing lights, driving all over the road – and given that we seem to attract crazy drivers we ignore him for a bit. He eventually overtakes and speeds off stopping in the distance and barring our way by a fork in the road that is signed to where we are going. It’s the guy from the café who, having suddenly remembered that the signed route is currently impassable, has driven quite a few kilometres – several of them unnecessarily as we’ve been ignoring him – to make sure that we don’t take that particular piste.
We spend the night in Landy parked up on the sand at the edge of a campsite by an oasis with the unbelievably bright stars twinkling overhead. It is quiet and still and absolutely enchanting.
In the morning we wander desert-wards with our sketchbooks to check out the dunes, running into Masoud, an elderly Bedouin, on our way. He is sitting in the shade in his sizable oasis garden where he’s been manually pollinating date palms to ensure a good crop. He invites us in and shows us around.
After twenty minutes or so we say that we’re walking out into the desert and he decides to accompany us, telling us about the lizards and scrubby plants that we pass. He tells us he has been cultivating his garden on this spot for the last 43 years and has frequently journeyed into the nearby desert for days at a time so he certainly knows what he’s talking about. We sit under a bush for a while and do a couple of drawings whilst Masoud chats away and then slowly wander back – disturbing a passing snake – dropping Masoud back to his shady garden en route.
It has been such an unexpected and captivating interaction that we immediately double back with our second last pot of marmalade – so your marmalade has made it all the way into the Sahara Rowena and John.
Setting off from Ksar Ghilane, our serious off-roading begins with Landy surfing the sand and climbing over the boulders that block our path. She is in her element and loves showing us what she can do, easily ploughing through 50 metres of deep sand that would have had us digging for hours in any other vehicle we’ve ever driven. We are seriously impressed.
We’re past the worst of it when a car carrying four Tunisians flags us down for directions and we’re able to help them, advising there is no way they are going to get through the way we’ve just come. The driver laughs at the irony that he is lost in his own country and having to ask directions from tourists. We also laugh and continue on our way feeling rather smug – and promptly take a wrong turning ourselves getting lost for several hours crag hopping on top of a mountain range on the edge of the desert.
We pass through small plots of land that are obviously cultivated and catch glimpses of small towns far below us but don’t see another person for the entire time we are up there.
The sense of isolation is epic, almost enhanced by the fact that we know we aren’t that far from civilisation if we can only get to it. We drive and drive, the pistes get steeper and narrower and it is harder and harder to see the track. It is incredible how quickly one small error can change a situation completely and we know that a slight slip up here could have extremely serious consequences.
We have no phone signal and our back up plan goes out of the window when we check our co-ordinates on our GPS only to discover that our map doesn’t have grid references. So we’re left following our compass and our instincts, eventually getting ourselves back to the road where we’d begun to go wrong.
We’ve become so used to being around people and they’ve all been so helpful that we’ve been getting quite relaxed, so this experience has really reinforced how we need to be prepared for every eventuality. The fact that we had food, 50 litres of water, 50 litres of extra fuel and a vehicle we could trust allowed us to enjoy the experience of being lost – the only real concern (apart from not doing any damage to Landy on this rough terrain as we’d never be able get her down again) was our impending deadline of meeting our guide on the Libyan border (still nearly 200km away) at 7 o’clock the following morning.
The view was spectacular, the sense of isolation a wonder to experience and the driving challenging but fun. We’d hoped to get off the beaten track and we’ve certainly done just that. Landy is definitely the team superstar and the only one of us not to put a foot wrong that afternoon.
We drive on through the stunning Berber town of Douiret surprising ourselves by the palpable sense of relief we feel at finally seeing people after four or five unexpected hours alone. We stop for supper in the friendly bustling town of Tataouine where we’re given much needed free coffee for our much-later-than-planned final push towards the Libyan border.
Our last night in Tunisia is spent in the border town of Ben Guerdane where – arriving at 11.00pm not sure if anything will be open – we are pleasantly surprised by the very lovely and helpful guy from the hotel who is happy to accept our last scraps of Tunisian change as payment for the room although it amounts to much less than the quoted price. We are so grateful to him for his warm welcome that he becomes the beneficiary of our final pot of homemade marmalade.
Everything seems OK. We are tired but safe and happy, organising our stuff and psyching ourselves up for Libya and the next step, when at 1.00am we are disturbed by agitated voices and a loud knock on the door: ‘It’s the police!’. Unwelcome interactions with the police do seem to be characterising our final moments in countries these days… But as usual it is just down to curiosity and it seems that our arrival is the most exciting thing happening in Ben Guerdane that night.
Apart from the barbed wire erected around the official buildings in the capital, you can visit Tunisia as a tourist without really noticing that a revolution has taken place in the last five years. However, once we began to make friends with people some of the after-effects become a bit more apparent.
As you’d expect in the wake of a cultural upheaval, we find a burgeoning art scene inspired by the events of 2010-11 and a lot of street art. The people we meet seem keen to talk about it which is interesting in itself and inevitably views on the subject vary from person to person.
One thing that sticks out is that no one describes life before the revolution in particularly bad terms – it is depicted as a liberal society where everyone had the freedom to behave as they liked, equal rights for women had been enshrined in law for decades, and the only freedom that was lacking was political (including perhaps the ability to criticise the president).
We hear how the country had gone from feeling absolutely secure to terrified overnight with guns appearing on the streets for the first time in living memory and the – previously state controlled – media escalating the situation by whipping up a frenzy, encouraging people out on to the streets to ‘protect themselves’, causing mayhem in the process.
Since the revolution the most obvious problem the country has faced is economic, with rising prices and huge unemployment especially amongst the youth. Despite the relaxed joie de vivre apparent throughout Tunisian society we are told that their revolution shook many of them to the core, particularly as – perhaps unlike some other countries with recent revolutions – the people had not experienced anything like it ever before. We’re told that the psychological effects of this are profound and still being felt today.
The overall impression we get is that the short term consequences of the revolution are pretty dire, especially in terms of the economy (although many people speculate that the economy would have been in a similar state at this time even if there had been no revolution). But the ability to speak freely about this – and other issues – is cited by many as a huge benefit. The psychological consequences are likely to have an impact well into the medium term, but we do find generally that people are tentatively hopeful about their longer term future – if they are left to decide their political future for themselves, that is, as there is a general worry that external forces are at work trying to exert influence over post-revolution Tunisia.
A friend in Tunis tells us that Tunisia is essentially half North African and half European and it does have that feel to it. It is an easy country to travel through and obviously familiar with tourism.
As with everything, the presence of tourism brings both pros and cons which initially manifested itself through slightly more aggressive sales people, the feeling of being treated as a number rather than a person and everything seeming to be for sale – we even came across a gigolo who seemed to be making a good living catering for slightly older Western women.
But Tunisia surprised us…and the fact that it took us several days to penetrate below the package holiday facade was probably down to our own preconceptions as much as anything else.
One experience stands out:
We were heading to Ksar Ghilane which is famous for its desert hot springs and – whilst we really wanted to try it – we had dreaded finding ourselves in a hot spring surrounded by other tourists and full of touts trying to sell us stuff. Our friend Seif in Tunis had tipped us off about one ‘a couple of kilometres off the road – turn right behind the pylon,’ that was off the tourist trail, so on spotting a pylon we turned right.
We found ourselves at a beautiful hot spring in the middle of the desert. It was evening, camels were wandering nearby, the sun was beginning to set and all was calm. As we sat by the spring a handful of people arrived and started to climb in. An elderly lady with a tattooed chin got in fully dressed, her middle aged son joining her in his shorts and singlet. Others followed and eventually we got in too.
We had no common language but immediately started smiling and chatting and within 30 seconds a water fight had begun. Sitting in a hot spring in the middle of the desert in a group of mixed age, gender and state of undress, we all let go of any previously held perceptions and just enjoyed this magical moment together.
Behind the package holiday scene Tunisia is playful, welcoming, honest and relaxed, and this random communal ‘hammam’ summed up the rest of our experience of the country as soon as we got off the mainstream tourist trail. A hugely diverse landscape is packed into a relatively small geographical space and the richness of the terrain is reflected in the people, culture, food and music.
It felt as though a whole other world had opened up to us.