When last I wrote, we were still a little jittery about flying into Tunisia less than a week after the President flew out. By now though, we’re pretty pleased with our good sense in moving to Tunisia just after a revolution rather than to Egypt just before. Impeccable timing, don’t you agree? In all seriousness, though, I wish the very best for the Egyptians in their political journey, and hope that this will be a new dawn for them and their beautiful country.
Our apartment, when our actually quite nice taxi driver dropped us off, was as beautiful as the pictures we’d seen of it on our latest favorite website, No Marmite in Tunisia. The owner lives in Chicago, but his family was downstairs from us. His mother kindly cooked us dinner the first night, and his brother went out shopping for us, since they were nervous about us going out. In fact, they seemed to get more and more nervous about us going out as time went on. After a couple of days, they told us that they would prefer for us to stay indoors 24/7 indefinitely. So we spent the weekend relaxing between marble floors and elaborately crown-moulded ceilings. By Wednesday, though, we were getting a little tired of feeling like we had to sneak out or face a lecture whenever we wanted to buy yoghurt at the corner store. We decided we needed an outing. So we packed up a lunch, snuck out again, walked to the train station, and asked for tickets to Hammamet, the country’s biggest and most famous beach resort town. The ticket vendor barked back something unintelligible, and handed us two tickets. But they weren’t for Hammamet. In fact, they weren’t for anywhere we’d ever heard of. We tried to ask a few other people waiting at the train stop, but weren’t quite sure of their answers, which mixed French, Tunisian Arabic, and English. We eventually gathered that we had to get off at our stop and switch trains for one going to Hammamet.
Our train, which ran fine, but looked as if it probably dated back to French colonial times, soon arrived. We dutifully looked out the train doors at every stop, but there weren’t any signs, and we never did end up seeing the stop marked on our tickets. So we just got off at the end of the line, which was, of course, the Central Train Station in Tunis. Maybe it was just our neighbors rubbing off on me, but I was still a little jittery. After all, it had been less than a week since that very area had been full of snipers and teargas. However, nobody else on the train looked tense at all, so we put a brave face on it, and stepped out into the sunny Tunis morning. Amid all the bustle of the city, the only remnants of the recent chaos were a couple of soldiers standing near a monument with barbed wire around it. We stopped to buy some candied peanuts nearby, and were approached by a nice man who spoke English, and told Tony how much to pay for the peanuts. Then, he suggested we take a turn around the medina, or old city. We asked a little anxiously about the protests. Mistaking our intent, he said they were a few blocks away, and he could take us over if we wanted to see them. We hastily declined, even when he offered to take us to some smaller demonstrations in front of the Interior Ministry. Instead, we agreed to go with him into the medina. As it turned out, his little tour around the medina was actually for the purpose of introducing us to his friends who sold various tourist souvenirs. We caught on after the perfume shop, and skipped the carpets, although in the end he did convince us to pay him a little something for the “tour.” Had it even occurred to us to read a guidebook on Tunisia before we arrived, we would have been already wise to this practice.
As it was, though, we laughed and chalked it up to experience. We actually had enjoyed his impromptu “tour,” and we were quite relieved to see how normal the whole city looked. In high spirits, we boarded our train to Hammamet. Hilariously enough, a few minutes into the ride, our landlord’s brother called us, frantic to know where we were. When Tony told him we were on a train to Hammamet, he said, “get off at the next stop, and I will pick you up!” We politely declined, and continued on our merry way. In fact, we were so relaxed that we both fell asleep, and completely missed Hammamet (and this time, no, we can’t blame it on jetlag). When the conductor came by to check our tickets, he informed us that our stop was half an hour behind us. All the kind Tunisians around us lamented that we hadn’t told them our destination in the first place so they could help us.
When we pulled up at the next stop, the conductor hurried us over the tracks, since the train going the opposite direction was just beside our train, and about to leave. Sadly, we puffed up thirty seconds too late. The next train to Hammamet, we were told, was in two and a half hours. However, the helpful man at the train station told us that we could catch a louage (shared taxi) in town. So we gamely walked down the street of the little town where we’d happened to land, asking several people along the way if we were going in the right direction to find the louage. To their credit, the Tunisians mostly refrained from staring at the only Americans in town, even though Tony was wearing Dominique in the Ergo backpack, and had Axa on his shoulders, creating more or less the impression of a three-headed giant.
Sure enough, a few streets later we came upon a large minivan, which was almost full of people. There was just enough room for us, and as soon as we had paid and sat down, the driver set off at a fairly frenetic pace. We passed some of the same picturesque countryside we’d seen from the train, consisting mostly in olive groves, meadows of yellow flowers, and the odd sheep or goat herd, complete with shepherd.
We had started out from Borj Cedria at half past nine, and when we finally made it to Hammamet (which is perhaps a forty minute drive away in a normal vehicle), it was four in the afternoon. That’s what we like to call joy in the journey, especially when we’re not in the midst of experiencing that joy. Really, I promise we’re not always quite this inept. But I’ve run all out of time telling you about how we got there, so I guess I’ll just have to wait till tomorrow to tell you about Hammamet.