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Saturday, September 06, 2003

Tentative Tunisian Itinerary
Tunis, Tunisia

We just returned from visiting Carthage and the little tourist town of Sidi Bou Said. Carthage was just as advertised, pretty much completely demolished by the Romans, but we definitely got an impression of how big the city must have once been. The baths were pretty cool, as was the museum, that detailed that once great civilization that existed before the Punic Wars.

Sidi Bou Said sort of reminded us of Essaouria, Morocco, with its whitewashed walls and blue shutters, except with ten times more tourists. We took the metro to get there, but after doing the pre-requisites (hiking to the top to see the panorama and getting a few donuts and some tea), we thought we might as well take off to avoid all the tourists. Things were not really inexpensive there either; in fact, what we have seen of Tunis definitely confirms what we read, that Tunisia was quite a bit wealthier than Morocco, and this is reflected in what the people have and do.

We've come up with a tentative plan for the next week in Tunis (Indian visa dependent, as Jen previously blogged), which involves us picking up another rental car (yet another Peugeot 206 from Avis) tomorrow. We figured that we'd get the best of both independent travel and having a bit of a bigger budget to work with; having a car allows us to go wherever we want (for the most part).

A key component to this plan was getting a hold of a Tunis guidebook, which we didn't have when entering the country. Our search through various bookstores in Tunis didn't turn up much except for a small summary book, until we passed by the British Council building. Upon entering, we spoke to an incredibly friendly Tunisian lady at the desk who very generously actually offered to loan us her own Rough Guide to Tunis. It was as if somebody had proffered us a brick of gold. Interestingly, this guide was a bit older, and we were very curious to see how much prices had risen in the last ten years. But without this book, our upcoming itinerary would be next to impossible.

We also visited a few tour agencies to see if there was anything that they offered that we'd be interested in. After a bit of research, we found a few itineraries that were pretty comprehensive, but they involved heavy use of coach busses that due to the short timeframes and long distances involved, looked like they would drive for two hours, drop you off for a few photos, and then wisk you to the next destination. So, what we did was took a typical 5 day preset tour, and stretched it out into a 7-8 day car tour that we'll do at our own pace, with a few extra places we'd like to see that are off the beaten track.

For safety's and well as interest's sake, we thought we might post our tentative itinerary for the next week, as we might be out of touch for that period of time. So here goes:
Sun Sept 7: pick up car, check out either Cap Bon or Bizerte
Mon Sept 8: Deal with Indian Visa in Tunis, get outta there, head to Dougga, Bulla Regia to see the ruins, possibly down to Le Kef
Tue Sept 9: Visit ruins at Sbeitla, through Kasserine, all the way down to Tamerza, near the desert and Tunis/Algeria border
Wed Sept 10: Maybe arrange a local desert tour for a few hours, explore the oases, head to Tozeur and Nefta
Thu Sept 11: Cross the Chott el Jerid salt lake to Kebili and Douz, and make our way to Matmata (Star Wars, Indiana Jones film site, etc).
Fri Sept 12: Explore Ghoumrassen, Chenini, Tatouine, if our car is up to dealing with the track roads!
Sat Sept 13: Go up to the island of Jerba for a bit of relaxation on the coast
Sun Sept 14: Head back up towards Tunis, visiting El Jem and Kairouan on the way.
Special thanks to Sheila Kuchta for all your great tips on what to do and see in Tunisia, much appreciated!

Incidentally, there was a huge storm here last night in Tunis, which I watched for a few hours, it was quite fascinating. Sheets of rain were coming in horizontally and sometimes even going upwards, the wind was so strong. I got a pretty neat lightning picture which I will hopefully post once I get the Tunisia page done. (It took about 80 attempted shots to get it, but shhhh...) So far the weather in Tunis has been warm and humid.

Alright, we've got a few more preparations to make and then we're setting off again into the wild blue yonder. I wonder if this is going to be an established pattern for us the next ten months... fly into a country (relatively unknown), do a bunch of research and get materials together in the city, then set out for the countryside to see the sites and meet the people. We'll have to see!

Friday, September 05, 2003

Tunisia, we know thee so little
Tunis, Tunisia

It's strange to imagine that we're no longer in Morocco. Being there for three weeks gave us an understanding of the culture and lifestyle in that wonderful country. Now we have to adjust to a new culture and experience what Tunisia has to offer.

On our last night in Casablanca, we had planned to eat at the Chinese restaurant at the Hyatt Hotel. It was recommended in Footprints, as 'the best chinese restaurant' in Morocco. Imagine our disappointment when we arrived and they said 'no more chinese restaurant'. Argh! Of course, that didn't stop us and we wandered down a few more streets and found the Golden China Restaurant. The owner, a Taiwanese, was very friendly and spoke to many of his customers. I asked him for a toothpick in Mandarin, and we ended up chatting a bit. The food was delicious, definitely the best Chinese we've had so far on this trip. The ones in Spain and Portugal can't even compare. We stuffed ourselves and thoroughly enjoyed the meal.

Yesterday is what you might call a 'travel' day for us. Leaving at 6:30am from the Casa Port train station, we were supposed to arrive at the airport in plenty of time to catch our 9:15am flight to Tunis on Royal Maroc Air. Well, things got a bit messy as we missed getting off at the right station to change trains to the airport, and ended up getting there an hour later. Unfortunately the agent at the checkin counter did not check us in for our flight (ok, by then it was less than 30 mins from departure time) and we ended up getting onto the wait list for the next flight out, which is 2 hours later on Air Tunis. Well, we ended up waiting for 2 hours before they told us that we were able to get 2 boarding passes, and by then, it was 20 mins till departure time. With all our bags in tow, we had to line up through 2 excrutiatingly slow lineups - security, and immigration. Suffice to say, by the time we actually got through all that, it was already 20 mins post departure time, but luckily ALL flights out of Casablanca were delayed. I suppose with such slow processing times, the planes would be lucky to fly out with half their passengers.

Anyhow, here we are in Tunis. We didn't do much last night except to walk around and got some information from the tourist office about this interesting country. We have no guidebooks for Tunisia, and have been unsuccessful at finding an English guidebook in Rabat and Casablanca. It feels strange to know so little about this country that we are visiting, but we have no doubts that we would soon learn much about it. The tourist office offered us a map of Tunis, as well as one for Tunisia, which are very helpful. They also handed us many colourful brochures (in English) on several regions and special places here. They were very beautifully done indeed and made us want to visit all of them. We wandered into a bookstore just before dinner, and lo and behold, found a concise albeit dated (1998) Berlin Tunisia Guide. Not exactly of the same calibre as the Lonely Planets or Rough Guides, it's still a good start for us at least in planning our travel and getting some basic tips.

Our first impressions of Tunis is that it is very modern. Definitely a different feel than any of the cities in Morocco. Almost everyone we see wear westernized clothing, and cars are much newer. In fact, we've seen severals mercedes, audi and saabs around. We are staying at the Hotel Tej, which is quite close to the Medina and the main railway station. The main boulevard is just a block away, and is beautifully lined with palm trees along the middle. The sidewalks are quite large, and were filled with chairs and tables as people were out all night enjoying their coffees and teas. As it was in Morocco, there are many patisseries here too. They sure look yummy! Some of the food here are similar to Morocco, like tajines and couscous. There are plenty of seafood offered here, which is expected since Tunis is a port city.

The Tunisian Dinar is a bit confusing at first. It's worth about 1.3 USD, so it's similar to the Canadian dollar. What is confusing is that instead of 100 cents, it's 1000 milimes. So prices are listed as 700 or 2200 (i.e. 70 cents, 2 dollars 20 cents). There are some cheap places to eat, snack bars that sell charwarmas or plats of assorted meats and fries for anything from 1000 to 2500. We ate at a restaurant last night that had a menu du jour for 5500 and included 2 appetizers, and entree, desert and mint tea. I really enjoyed my grill shrimp!

Our hotel includes breakfast, so after eating, we took a cab to the Embassy of India which is in the Notre Dame area (away from city center). We were unsuccessful at dropping off our passport as they 'need' to check with the ambassador on Monday as to whether they can process our application. So, I guess we might be in Tunisia a bit longer than intended, but that's ok. There is quite a bit to see here. Today we are going to see if we can get a custom tour arranged for us as it's not that convenient taking public transportation to many of the places we want to see. We are also considering renting a car for a week if the tour does not work out. We'll let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Final Moroccan Observations
Casablanca, Morocco

We've just arrived in Casablanca, where we will spend one night, then fly from here to Tunis early tomorrow morning. This is our last day in Morocco, and we're feeling somewhat regretful yet at the same time, fulfilled. We enjoyed a pleasant day trip to Meknes yesterday, where we spent several hours walking around the medina, visiting the mausoleum of Moulday Ismail, and checking out the impressive graneries and stables. The obligatory visit to the crafts and carpet store was brief, as the vendor quickly realized that we were far too savvy after three weeks in Morocco to be conned into buying any souvenirs! However, Meknes certainly did seem to be one of the more relaxed of the Imperial cities.

I think it's fair to say that we've had a good taste of Morocco, and definitely hope to return again one day. I've almost completed developing the Morocco web page, just need to add the pictures from Rabat, Meknes, and Casablanca, then find an internet cafe that will allow me FTP access.

There are a few last observations that I have to share about our visit to Morocco:

Moroccan Driving
Driving from Fes down to the desert and then back up to Marrakech was a lot of fun, and actually not all that difficult at all. We rented from Avis, a stick-shift (no other option) Peugeot 206, the same car we had in Portugal, except here we didn't take it up to 150km/hr.

Driving from Ouarzazate to Marrakech through the High Atlas mountains was spectacular, if you like curvy mountainous roads. We hit the really windy parts as the sun was setting, so we got views of huge canyon drops at dusk. Eventually we were driving in the dark, with only our headlights illuminating the blind corners and curves of the mountain road. I wish we could have done that drive during the day, because there were some incredible drop-offs and cliffs that we drove beside. Once in a while, the drop-off would be on BOTH sides of the car, as we traversed the ridge of a mountain instead of creeping alongside it.

On the highways, it was no different than driving at home. However, in the cities, it was another matter altogether. Pretty much as long as you go relatively slowly, you can do almost anything you want. Avoiding pedestrians isn't part of the psyche of Moroccan drivers; the onus seems to be on the pedestrians to avoid the cars. Rule of the road: whatever is bigger than you gets the right of way, usually. Driving through Marrakech trying to find our hotel was a fun experience; talk about navigating through an obstacle course. But with Nancy's capable navigation, we found a great parking spot there.

Hot Blood
We've got the distinct impression that Moroccans certainly wear their hearts on their sleeves. They seem to be incredibly warm with each other, and don't hesitate to show public displays of friendship and companionship.

However, we didn't see many public displays of love/affection between couples, other than couples holding hands in Rabat and Casablanca. More interestingly, we saw many incidents that involved a great deal of anger and usually some sort of physical action. These incidents seemed related to driving or something on the street, but weren't restricted to men and men; several times we saw a woman yelling at a man as well, and several fistfights between young boys.

Typically, we'd first hear a lot of shouting and yelling, and then would turn to see everyone rush to the scene to form a big crowd around the two antagonists. Often, the shouting would turn into somebody getting hit; three times we saw a woman slap a man on the side of the head, not gently at all. With men and boys fighting, we saw throats being grabbed, stones thown, and a lot of pushing and shoving. We didn't actually see punches being thrown.

Interestingly enough, this seems to be an accepted form of behaviour, since as soon as the altercation was over, everyone went about their business as if nothing had happened. We didn't really understand it, but like we said, I think Moroccans tend to be more open about some of their emotions than what we're used to.

More Discussion with Moroccans
Our guide in Meknes, Mohammed, was recommended by the girls when they used his services (while we were laid up sick in Fes). He proved to be very knowledgeable about more than just Meknes, and answered many of our questions about Islam, Christianity, and religion. Two things he said stand out in my mind: He said (paraphrased), "Many Moroccans confuse tradition with religion. Too often things are done in the name of religion, but really are only done due to tradition. Because of this, religion is sometimes vilified unnecessarily."

The other memorable comment Mohammed made was in response to my question about Morocco representing liberal Islam. His answer to that was, "Figuratively yes, Morocco can perhaps be said to be representative of liberal Islam. But really, there is no liberal Islam, there is no radical Islam... there is only one Islam, as there is only one Christianity or Bhuddism. For Muslims, there is one book, the Koran, but it can be interepreted in many ways by man. It is people's interepretations of Islam that are different, whether it is Suni or Shiite, or Anglican or Protestant. These differences are the things that people choose to highlight too often rather than their similarities." A pretty wise guide, I think.

On the train back to Rabat from Meknes yesterday, we sat in a compartment with a couple in their late 40's or so. I struck up a conversation with the gentleman, and in very halting French on my part, had a very enjoyable conversation with him. We discussed all kinds of things about Morocco, and interestingly we got into a fairly deep political discussion, which the guidebooks actually warn us from doing. He was obviously well educated, and talked about foreign policy of various nations, the influence of the G8 on countries like Morocco, and the differences/similarities between Canada and the US.

Of course, this prompted me to bring up the Companion Flag, and when I did, it was as if he was already aware of the Companion Flag and what it stood for. He caught on very quickly, irrespective of my poor grammar, and summarized it succinctly: "Le Drapeau Compagnon est un symbole pour tout le monde." With luck, he will pass this on to his daughter to share with her classmates at school.

Well, keep an eye out for a few Morocco pages to be posted, hopefully soon. We're not sure how long we're going to be in Tunisia, but we're toying with the idea of splitting the next two weeks between Tunisia and Sicily, before we meet Scott and Rochelle in Malta. For now, we'll just follow our noses! Until next time Morocco, Shukran, Allah Ya'wnek!

Monday, September 01, 2003

Changing Gears
Rabat, Morocco

Marrakech is a fascinating city, and we were glad to return to it after our nice getaway to Essaouira. Our dinner at the Dar Moha was truly wonderful and enjoyable, and as Winston mentioned earlier, he will have a website just for that meal and you can see what we experienced.

We left early Thursday morning, August 28th, for Essaouira, and returned on Saturday evening (on a Supratours bus, which is operated by the train company, ONCF - quite comfortable), just in time to catch sunset behind the Koutoubia mosque, and a wonderful view of the whole 'place' from a roof top terrace with the beautiful colours. We enjoyed 2 bowls of Harira (Moroccan soup) each at one of the stalls and walked around the souks. It is always so lively in the evenings and everybody from babies to grandparents seem to stay up late. Ice cream is definitely a very popular item here, and at 2dh (20 cents) a cone, who could blame them? Back at the Hotel Central Palace, we had a 'big' room this time with private bath, a/c and tv. What luxury! The room was actually quite pretty, with mosaic tiles, and decorated ceilings. The staff here are very friendly and helpful. We highly recommend this hotel if you visit Marrakech. It's also just a block away from the square.

The next morning we woke up early to visit the Saadian Tombs and El Badi Palace. When the Palace was built in the 1500s, it was considered one of the most beautiful buildings with lavish mosaics, gold, onyx and marble; in the 17th century, Moulay Ismail, very notable king of Morocco, decided to move the capital to Meknes, and striped this palace of all its decorations and fittings. It is now just a ruin, but still very interesting to visit. We could see remains of mosaics here and there, and one can only imagine how grand it was back in the 16th century.

We caught the 11:10am train to Rabat. Sitting in a 1st class carriage (6 seats), we enjoyed conversing with a Moroccan mother and daughter in our compartment. Speaking no French, I could understand the gist of the conversation (Winston's French has improved so much in the past little while). They were very friendly indeed. In Casablanca, a couple (who spends half their time in London and half in Morocco) joined our carriage so we have another hour of good conversation before we took off at the Rabat Ville station.

The Hotel Central is truly in a great location. Just a block and a half from the train station, we were able to drop off our bags. Coincidentally, we arrived just a few minutes after Harriet and Nancy, who had taken an overnight train from Essaouira to Casablanca, and then the shuttle train from Casa to Rabat. The four of us set off to the Archeological Museum which we had all been looking forward to visiting; to our dismay and disappointment, they were closed for renovations! One of the men (we think he might have been the caretaker) there was nice enough to let us in so we could walk around and look at the 2 statues that were not covered under canvas or cardboard. Phooey.

We walked south of the city towards the Chellah, which is a wonderful site of ruins - Roman town, Merinid mosque and mosque-monastery of a Black Sultan. There were also resident storks and their nests in the trees and on top of the minaret, cats hanging out by the infertility pond (they get fed the yolks - barren women throw whites of hardboiled eggs into the pool to black eels - how is that for symbolism, eh?), along with wild and lush gardens of bougainvillaes and orange trees. We were all so tired from travelling that this was a perfect place to hangout - there were many couples there, obviously on their 'dates'. We had dinner at the Restaurant La Clef, near the train station. It was quite yummy.

This morning, we enjoyed our last breakfast together before the girls had to catch their 10:17am train to Tangier and we got into a taxi to the Embassy of India. When we got to the embassy, we found out that it would take up to 7 working days to process our visa (darn!) so we decided that rather than spending the next week and a half here, we would just apply to the embassy in Tunis (and this time we will do it as soon as we arrive).

The rest of the day, we spent getting our ticket to Tunis (flying out of Casablanca on Thursday morning), train ticket to Meknes tomorrow (since we missed seeing it when we were sick in Fez), and train ticket to Casa on Wednesday morning. We will spend one night in Casablanca before flying out early the next morning. We went to visit the Hassan Tower and Mohammed V Mausoleum. Arriving before the sun started the set, we caught beautiful colours of the sky and on the walls of the buildings. There were many people out and about, with children running around, the smell of freshly popped corn and just a relaxed and casual feeling. The tower was built int he 12th century but was never completed. Nevertheless, it is still very impressive at 45m tall (it is supposed to be 80m when completed). The mausoleum is quite beautiful and lavish, with mosaics, painted ceilings, and marble tombs.

While walking back to the center of town, we passed by a lounge called Le Purple, which is beautiful and trendy inside (lots of bright colours and very contemporary). Unfortunately they were not ready to serve for another hour so we may have to come back and visit tomorrow night. We ate dinner at La Mama, an Italian restaurant that is recommended in both our guidebooks. It was nice to have a change from tajine and couscous, much as we like it. I got 4 scoops of Italian ice cream right next door when we left. YUMMY! The guidebook said that this was the best ice cream in Rabat, and I would have to agree with them. Definitely very tasty.

Tomorrow we're going to head to Meknes (we've contacted the guide used by Diana, Harriet and Nancy) and return to Rabat in the evening. Then it's a very early morning train to Casablanca the next day to catch a tour of the Hassan II mosque. Then it'll be our last night in Morocco. We have certainly enjoyed our visit to this country and have hopes for a return trip. Together with the girls, we decided that we will all come back after it has rained (so we can see the rivers flowing and palmeries green), and in the spring time. Bonsoir!


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