Getting to Tunisia

Although we came here with reckless abandon in the wake of a revolution, Tony and I did at least have the decency to feel a little jittery on our arrival in Tunisia. After the exhilaration of finally getting on the train, and the beautiful ride over the mountains from Italy to France, our first really bad moment was in the Nice airport. Our flight had been delayed for a couple of hours without explanation. So we sat for a long time at the departure gate, entertaining our tired but hyper children and vividly picturing any number of disastrous events that could very plausibly be suspected of delaying our flight. We also continued covertly watching our fellow passengers and trying unsuccessfully to convince ourselves that one or two of them might also be tourists. Tony eventually struck up a conversation with a nice young man who was sitting next to us. He was Tunisian, but studying in France. And just now he was taking a week off from his studies so he could be a part of the protests. We wished him success, but never did end up finding another tourist to validate our own folly.

The aiplane did finally show up, and we were cheerfully boarded by a crew who appeared none the worse for having come straight from riot-beleagured Tunis. Tony, Axa and I were seated in one row, and Dominique was supposed to be just across the aisle. With his usual three-year-old gravity, he explained that he preferred the window seat, and happily made friends with the stranger who felicitously preferred the aisle, who ended up sitting between him and his parents for the duration of the flight. When we arrived at the Carthage airport, we went through immigration, changed a little money, loaded up our luggage carts, and went off in search of a taxi. Of course, it was a short search, since before we could even exit the airport we were accosted by a cloud of taxi drivers, a couple of whom forcibly grabbed our luggage carts and hurried us off in the direction of their respective vehicles, verbosely explaining all the way that they would put us in two separate taxis because of our voluminous luggage, and all drive off happily together.

In my state of anxiety, I was not about to let Tony drive off in a taxi without me, even if the taxi drivers faithfully promised to stay together. In fact, I had a little panic attack right then at the very thought. Even at the best of times, taxis and I do not agree. Give me an overcrowded bus, a hot, sweaty train, or even a jeepney any day over a taxi. I had a few too many uncomfortable encounters with taxi drivers in my younger, unmarried days traveling in developing countries. Feminist ideals aside (and let’s be honest, whatever one’s persuasion, in a place where it is perfectly possible for your male traveling companion to joke with a market vendor about trading you for a couple of camels, feminist ideals must sometimes be laid gently aside for the sake of prudence), why anyone would think it is a good idea for a duo of unaccompanied females to willingly get in the back of a scruffy-looking stranger’s car, is utterly beyond me. And it’s no use getting in the front seat of the taxi so you can seem a little more assertive, because the worst possible thing is to actually be within reach of the driver. So it’s the backseat or nothing, and getting overcharged is the least of your worries when the driver inexplicably but obstinately drives in the opposite direction from the one you’ve indicated, or you have to jump out and run at a stop light because he appears to be attempting to kidnap you. I don’t mean to badmouth the entire profession, because I’ve met a lot of nice taxi drivers too. But in general, I am just not fond of taxis.

Since our plane had arrived later than we had intended, and curfew was still set at 6 p.m., I had reluctantly agreed to take a taxi to the train station. Our original plan (formulated by me) had been to take a bus from the airport to the central train station, and then a train the rest of the way, thus avoiding taxis altogether. Tony was now leaning toward taking a taxi all the way to our new apartment, which I fiercely resisted.  To my dismay and suspicion, our over-friendly taxi drivers informed us that the trains were not running that day because of a transportation strike. It was a perfectly plausible story (and in fact, turned out to be true), but I was not disposed to believe them, especially after they brought over a friend, whom they said was a police officer, to corraborate their story. He was not in uniform, and I immediately thought back to the news stories I had been reading for the past couple of days about the rogue police force driving all over the country, doing drive-by shootings from ambulences and looting liquor stores. Supposedly, none of the Tunisians trusted the police at all, so why should we? I rolled my eyes inwardly, and suggested that we stop by the information desk. Unfortunately, tourist information was not at that moment the top priority of the Tunis airport, and the information desk was empty.

By this time, enough of the taxi drivers had agreed with one another about the transportation strike that I was forced to give in and believe them. However, we did persuade one driver with a slightly larger taxi to load all our bags and us into his, since I flatly refused to go in separate vehicles. In any case, it was a rather tense and silent ride at the beginning. I began to feel a little ashamed of myself for being so paranoid and suspicious, especially after our driver pointed out the lack of any kind of public transportation other than taxis in the streets, and offered to take us by the train station so we could see for ourselves that it was closed. Tomorrow, he informed us, the taxis were also going on strike. We breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t delayed our flight one more day, and I unbended toward him a little more. Up till now, we had been communicating with our driver in English, which he spoke sparingly, but better than my rusty Arabic or our nonexistent French. After a while, he apologized for his English, remarking that he really specialized more in French, Spanish, and Italian. With relief on both sides, we switched to Italian, and were soon conversing merrily. As we would discover over the next few days, monolinguals in Tunisia are a rarity, encompassing pretty much only the British tourists, who at the moment have all fled the country. All the Tunisians we’ve met are fluent in French and Arabic, and often quite proficient in Italian, English, German, Spanish, or all of the above.

As it turned out, it wasn’t that bad of an idea to skirt the central train station altogether. After all, most of the horror stories you may have read of eyewitness accounts of chaos and mayhem from the aforementioned British tourists happened on the way to the airport as they were being evacuated. We stayed on the freeway, and didn’t see a thing, even though the protests were still in full (although fairly peaceful) swing. In fact, in spite of my anxiety before and during, I’d say it was one of our smoothest international flights ever. There were adventures to come, of course, but for the moment, we were safely settled, with no bigger problems than finding internet so I could post my blog.

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