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Saturday, September 13, 2003

Farewell, Tunisia
Tunis, Tunisia

Gosh, time has flown by so quickly and we're back in Tunis already. We've had a great time on our road trip through this country. Leaving Tataouine on Thursday morning, we went back to the nice pattiserie and bought crepes and croissants for the road. Of course we had another round of the delicious jus de pomme before we leave. The area of the south is mostly inhabited by the Berbers, many of them had nomadic lifestyles in the past. There are villages scattered throughout the region, and most of them constructed them homes into the sides of the mountains. We took the opportunity to visit five villages with the car.

Note: The areas that are normally visited and of any interests to tourists are already abandoned, with the 'new' village of the same name set up close to the original site.

First we went to see Douiret. We were very impressed with this site, and as we had gone there early in the morning, we had the entire site to ourselves. A couple of young men tried to approach us (as guides, our guess) but quickly left when Winston spoke only English to them. The old village was set on the side of a hill, with the buildings all dug into the hill itself. Everything was brown, with the except of a small white mosque towards the top of the hill. Many of the villages were designed that way to make them difficult to spot and also made use of natural resources for construction. It is difficult to describe them so keep an eye out for our webpage on the ksaours when we post our Tunisian adventures.

Then we drove to Chenini on what was marked as a secondary road. This 9km drive took quite a while as we could not go faster than 5km/hr. Not only was the road not surfaced, it was covered with rocks of all sizes. It was interesting though, and we only felt slight bits of envy as the 4x4s cruised by us off the trail. Phfft.

Chenini is one of those places that is on most tour itineraries. Luckily it wasn't too busy when we got there, just three 4x4s were parked. We had a young man (20 years old) as our guide and he led us up the hill through the old rubble of ghorfas, homes and palaces and pointed out the different landscape to us. Chenini is much larger in size in comparison to Douiret, and had two mosques; one of which is underground. There were four or five rows of homes built all the way to the top. We walked into an old ghorfa and saw finger prints and other drawings carved into the cave. Berbers believed in the hand of Fatima and fish as good luck charms, and these were very visible. We were able to see the house of a Berber woman who lives among the ruins. There were 4 caves facing a courtyard; kitchen, sleeping quarters, ghorfa or storage, and dining area. It was funny to see her 13" TV and double stove top but I suppose it is the 21st century after all.

At Guermessa, we just took some pictures from the side of the road as the ruins was not as accessible. From far away, we could see the extensiveness of the construction along the hill - for the entire length of this hill, we could see the holes that were the doors and windows of all the houses. It was a neat site even from our standpoint.

Ghoumrassen, the only Berber town we saw looked quite nice. We wished we could have spent more time there as the townspeople Winston encountered were very friendly. The new town was developed on the plains right below all the old cave dwellings. In some cases, the current buildings back directly onto an old one. It was interesting again to see the homes on the hills. Winston walked about a residential area taking pictures and generated quite a bit of curiousity from one house. There were a few women there with several children, When they saw him pull out his camera, they quickly ran into the house and came back out with scarves over their heads. For the rest of the time, they hid behind the columns of their front door, yet watching and talking about Winston the entire time. It was quite funny. We were hoping to try some ftairs, the donuts made by this town. Unfortunately we were told that they were only made in the mornings and were already sold out by the time we were there. Too bad.

Our final stop was the Ksar Haddada. This site was used by Lucas in filming the Phatom Menace. When the Jedis had to go buy the part to fix their spaceship, this was the place they went, the stores that looked like round caves. The ksar is part of a reconstruction project, so rather than just piles of rubbles as we saw in Metameur, these were live size. The tallest ghorfas were three storeys high, and there were little steps built on the outside so that you can climb to the top.

We continued driving past Medinine towards the coast, and headed up the island of Jerba. Here we stopped at several hotels along the beach before stopping at the Hotel Beau Rivage. It's a smaller place in comparison to the giant resorts that were scattered all over the place. We got a beautiful room, with a large terrace with a view of the water. Since this was a pension instead of a full scale hotel, we didn't have to pay for ammenities which we didn't need. We walked along the beach at sunset, and it was quite nice, especially with the breeze. For dinner, we went to the monster hotel next door. Walking it we could immediately feel the buzz. Not only was the hotel full of people, they were also walking around in Tunisian outfits or swimming trunks and their arms were full of goodies they had purchased. This was the first time we had seen so many kids; we were in an all inclusive family resort where the clients were mostly Europeans. It made sense since Europe's school begin on September 15th.

We paid to have dinner there, and walked through the door to one of the most wonderful buffets we had every sampled. There were MANY dishes in all categories. It would take too long to name what they had, plus I don't remember most of it anyway, but needless to say, we both left STUFFED, with a capital S. It was great!!! Back at our terrace, we sat our there enjoying the evening breeze and slept with the doors open. Ahh..

Friday morning we drove into Haumt Souk, the capital city of Jerba. There were tons of shops there, as it is a tourist city after all. We spent time on the Internet and headed south to Ajim to catch the ferry back to the mainland. It was so cheap to take the ferry - just 800milimes (80cents) for the vehicle. Sure, it is a short ride, but it was still quite interesting and pleasant. There were many sailings during the day, so we did not have to wait long to get across. We had planned to get to El Jem but had gotten a late start, so we ended up spending the night in Sfax.

We didn't really explore Sfax as it is just a bit city. We stayed at the Andalous Hotel, and ordered room service (yes, just a bit of luxury but it wasn't expensive at all) and watched Miss Europe 2003 live on the TV. After a nice breakfast this morning (included in the price) we set off for El Jem.

El Jem's fame is its Roman Amphitheatre. Considered 6th in size in the world, it is often compared to the Roman Coliseum. It is quite large, and has been reconstructed in some areas. In particular, the floor area has been fully reconstructed so one can see its size. Apparently it could seat 30000 which is more than the size of the population at the time, so it has been suggested that watching these games drew crowds from all across the country. Interesting.

We also visited the museum there, and it was fascinating. Not only were there plenty of beautiful mosaics here (these are by far the most colourful and elaborate mosaics we have seen thus far), there was also a neat project here called Africa House. A luxury villa, belonging to some rich person, had been reconstructed. Many of the mosaics on the floor of this grand buildings were still in situ, as were some of the paintings that were on the walls. The building itself is 3000 sq meters - which is considered very extravagant. Ordinary homes were between 100-150 sq ms. In comparision to the previous Roman ruins we have seen, where we could also see the floors and rubbles of the columns, here we could actually see the walls and ceilings, and therefore have a much better as to the grandeur of these homes. Wow. Each time I see these mosaics, I am inspired to try making one when I get home. Remind me when I'm back! :)

Next we drove north to Kairoun, the holy city of Northern Africa. In addition to Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Kairoun is the fourth of the special Islamic cities. In fact, going to Kairoun 7 times count as going to Mecca for the Muslims. We visited the Great Mosque and Mosque of the Barber, two of their most famous mosques. There are 135 mosques in Kairoun. The Great Mosque is very large though quite plain in terms of their decoration, though with its simple lines, it definitely looks even more imposing. The Mosque of the Barber on the other hand, is elaborately decorated with carved plasters, stained glass, and colourful tiles.

We had a guide Hemil, who is a student of technical engineering at a university in Kairoun. He also showed us the Mosque of the Three Doors, the mineral water drawn up by a camel (this water is thought to have a source from Mecca) and several Berber artisans at work (rug weaving, slipper making, jelaba sewing). As suspected, we ended up with a pitch at the carpet shop but left without buying any. Driving north, and eventually merging onto the toll road, we made it back to Tunis at 5pm and checked into the Hotel Tej, the same hotel we stayed in last weekend when we were here. We even got the same room from the clerk who recognized us.

We brought Lilia's Rough Guide to Tunis along with our Morocco Footprints to a watch shop just below the British Council. She had let the shopkeeper know to expect us when we came to see her last Monday. He recognized us immediately (hm, I guess there aren't too may Chinoise around here) so hopefully she will get it back for sure on Monday morning.

We had dinner at the same rotisserie we've been to several times now, and enjoyed the poulet and salad there. There were many people walking about and drinking their cafe au lais at the sidewalk cafes, and we are struck by how different Tunis is incomparison to the other cities we have visited in Tunisia. Everything is definitely much more modern here, and again, we can sense the wealth. We have truly enjoyed our stay here in Tunisia, minus the Indian embassy incident, and appreciate the history of this country and the culture and tradition of its people.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

North to South
Tataouine, Tunisia

Monday afternoon, after blowing steam from our Indian Embassy rejection and searching through town for an updated English guidebook (we were unsuccessful), we finally set off on our road trip. Driving Southwest in our Renault Clio (they didn't give us a Peugeot 206 this time). we headed for the ruins at Dougga. Wow, this place is huge - 25 hectares, according to a fellow who was trying to be our guide. The sitewas definitely very impressive, and considered to be one of the greatest Roman ruins in North Africa. Arriving late in the afternoon, not only was the weather pleasant, there were also hardly any tourists. Yeah! In comparison to the ruins we've seen in Portugal and Morocco, this one definitely had the most 'standing' structures. There were few mosaics to see, but plenty of columns, carving ofwords and an almost intact theatre seating and stage areas. I'm sure we'll have some pictures of this up soon.

Leaving Dougga (we had to miss Bulla Regia since we left Tunis too late in the day) we drove towards Le Kef, the largest town of the west. Along the way, we saw many sheep, donkeys and scattered Roman and Byzantine ruins, including one very intact arch right by the main road. The sky was incredible with the sunset. We've since noticed that the skies here had more pink and purple hues than at any other country we've visited.

Le Kef is up high on a mountain, and we spent the night at the Hotel de la Source. A very old hotel, we chose it for a description in the rough guide. It has one unique room, with a four poster bed and beautiful plastered ceiling. Sure enough the room was quite beautiful, if not, a bit too large for our needs. There was a double bed (four poster), and 2 single beds - the floor area was in the shape of a T, with the bathroom off to a side. The floors and walls were all tiled with colourful patterns, and the ceilings, well, there isn't a good way to describe it except with pictures. Imagine looking up, and all you see are carvings of various sizes and designs, vaulted from top to the sides. Again, you're going to have to wait for pictures to see it as I can't describe it too well.

Early the next morning, we loaded up with 12 bottles of drinking water, and drove down towards the south. Leaving the Tell region, we drive south into the Jerid, which is the land of the oases. We decided to bypass Sbeitla, another Roman ruin site, since we had just witnessed an amazing one the day before. Driving over 400km, we finally settled down for the night in Tozeur. On the way, we drove through the phosphate mining areas of the country, watching the belts at work (conveyor belts that look like covered railway tracks). We drove through the oasis of Tamerza, and then Chebika before driving across a salt basin to Tozeur. At the oasis, we are always surprised to see such greeness spring out of nowhere in the midst of the brown dirt. The entire Jerid region is blessed with several springs and waterfalls, making irrigation for the palm dates a natural one. Indeed, while driving through the oasis of Chebika (who needs a 4x4), we could hear and see the gushing water that constantly feeds the plantations.

In Tozeur, we decided to pamper ourselves at Ksar Jerid, a very pleasant hotel. Unfortunately there were MANY tourists there, mostly French, but the place was large enough that we could find a spot to read by the pool, go for a swim and enjoy our air conditions 3 bed spacious room. We signed up for the demi pension (half board) so enjoyed a buffet dinner at the hotel after our swim in the sparkling blue pool. With our avis car rental, we were able to get a 15% discount. Woo hoo!

This morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and headed west out to the Sahara. We had to cross the Chott El Jerid on our way to the desert. This huge salt basin was incredible to drive through. At various moments of the drive, we could see mirages ahead of us. The sand/salt formation would change constantly.. first it was rocky and brown on the right, then it was white and sandy on the left, then there was water the colour of rust, then it was deep red, then green, etc. Through it all, there was the sparkling soda gleaming from the sunshine.

Upon arriving at Kebili at the end of the Chott, we immediately turned south towards Douz, the edge of the Sahara. On the way there, we stopped by a small town called Jemna, which is known for its sweet drinking water. There were plenty of locals filling up their bottles and jerricans, so we also joined it and drank some of the water that was gushing out of the pipe. It tasted quite nice actually, not at all like tap water. In fact, Winston thought it was like the water in Vancouver, which we all know is excellent drinking water.

Arriving in Douz, we could see the Grand Erg Oriental, but decided to head further west towards Zaafrane, which we have read is even closer to the Sahara. Sure enough, just 10km later, we drove upon an open area that was all sand, dromedaries, and ugh.. tourist buses with loads of tourists. Oh well.. we declined the camel vendor's attempt to get us up on the camel and wandered off towards the desert to take pictures. It was quite hot, but we did have our hats on, and a bottle of water. I think we were spoilt already with Erg Chebbi in Morocco.

We decided to get adventurous and drove into the little streets of Zaafrane closer to the dune (almost got stuck, but luckily Winston's driving skills got us out of the soft sand). There we climbed up on the dune itself and took photos (the sand got into our sandals and it was HOT!!). Leaving Zaafrane, we drove back up towards Douz, and across to Matmata. Just before Matmata (which we didn't know was up high), we stopped by the de almonde and had to share the parking lot with many tourist vehicles. Hmm... by the time we got into Matmata, we could see even more tour buses. Argh. Oh well, we had come to Matmata to see the troglodytes (underground dwellings) so we joined the many bodies off to visit the site of Star Wars. At the Hotel Sidi something (I forget its name), we visited the location where the first shot of Luke Skywalker with his uncle and aunt was filmed. It was interesting to see the holes dug out into the mountains; cool inside, sheltered from the sun. From the road, and new buildings, you can see pits around town. Each pit opens up to the courtyard of the underground 'caves', a very interesting design.

Leaving Matmata towards the Jerba area, we drove on what we thought was a secondary road towards Medenine (instead of driving up towards Gabes first on the principal road, and down south to Medinine as most people). Well, this was definitely a very scenic drive, as we were high up on the mountain range, and drove for 40km following a curvy, though in most parts, unpaved road. It looks as if they were widening the road, so most of it have been dug up or covered by rocks and dust. Let me tell you that we certainly wished we had our Nissan Pathfinder with us. We were definitely all wheel driving, though our Clio did manage quite well to get us through it. The landscape was very interesting - jagged mountain ridges, with views of buildings down in the valley, tall palm trees here and tree letting us know that there was water underneath.

The disturbing part was going through Toujane and beyond, many kids would try to stand in front of the car and demand for money before letting us through. Several times, they ran after the car. It is a bit of a nuisance though we can only imagine what poor areas these must be. We really felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, and should our car broke down, we would've had to wait for a long time before anyone else came along.

We had planned to stay at a ksar in Metamour, just before Medinine. However, when we arrived, we were told that the hotel had closed down. :( It is always tricky working with a guidebook that is 11 years old, as businesses close down and new ones open up. While we were there, we went on a short tour of the ksar (fortified granaries) with 2 vendors. We looked at the destroyed walls of the ksar and some of the ghorfas (buildings to store grains). These ghorfas were used by the nomads as a place to store their belongings and grains while they moved into the mountains and desert. There were holes in the walls where the women could store their jewellery and other valuables. Each ghorfa can be single, double, or triple storeyed, with a lock for the door and a hole where the cat can get through to catch mice.

It was almost time for the sun to set so we drove past Medinine (read that there were not many good hotel options here) and headed south towards Tataouine. We found a room at the Hotel Medina in the heart of town. Again it has 3 beds, but in most of Tunisia, prices are per person (usually including breakfast) so it didn't matter. The extra bed makes a great place to store our bags. We found a wonderful pattiserie to have dinner before heading for this Internet cafe. We had excellent sandwiches (with homemade round bread, olives, tuna, onions, green pepper, tomatoes, fries and chili sauce) and delicious apple juice (which was made with milk). Yummy. All this for $3. Certainly can't get anything like this at home!

Tomorrow we are going to explore some of the other villages in this Ksar area. We will probably find a place to stay in Jerba, and island, before heading up north towards El Jem and Karouine in the next couple of days. We're planning to be back in Tunis if not Saturday evening, by Sunday morning to go for a visit to the Bardo Museum before we have to return our car at the airport at 12:30pm. We have arranged for a flight into Malta on Tunis Air that afternoon, so it works out perfectly with our rental car dropoff. We're looking forward to another day of surprises in this interesting country!

The 'Touristification' of Tunisia
Tatouine, Tunisia

I've spoken a few times about our preference to avoid 'touristy' areas, although we of course are exactly that... tourists. But passing coach after coach bus on the road, followed by fleets of 4x4 Jeeps driving in groups of three or four, has made us keenly aware of how popular Tunisian attractions seem to be.

I don't know how many times in the last few days we've said to each other, "this car was a really good idea." We've been able to see sites at off-peak times (e.g. we had the Roman ruins at Dougga practically to ourselves) and been able to take routes busses can't navigate (e.g. along the one-lane mountain trail between Matmata and Medenine). Besides, driving on rough roads, across a salt lake, through the desert, along mountain cliffs, and through palm-tree filled oases is actually a LOT of fun!

Of course, it is inevitable that we will see actual attractions at the same time as the coach tourists do, and it was at Carthage and Matmata that we joined in the throngs of camera-toting pale-skinned tourists to dutifully recite our ooh's and ahh's. We blended in perfectly of course... like I said, we know that we ARE tourists after all.

Staying at cheapo hotels and eating in the street cafes is one way to differentiate ourselves though, and I think we've been happiest when wandering into a cafe by the street, watching what the locals order, pointing to it when it's our turn to order, then grinning contentedly after our first bites. The food has always been good, and the prices cheap. The cheap hotels, well, we have stayed at some dives, and have the bedbug bites to prove it. But we've mixed it up a fair bit, staying in a fancy riad one night, and then in a $9 pensione the next night. It certainly makes us appreciate the times when we decide to splurge and stay at a typical almost Western-standard hotel.

So far in Tunisia, there hasn't been anywhere more 'touristified' than the Star Wars film site at Matmata. Granted, it is a fascinating site and the landscape does indeed look lunar, as do the Troglodyte homes (the big pits dug into the ground for homes). But we were just as impressed by the countless numbers of coaches and SUV's that pulled up, unloaded their passengers like so many worker ants, loaded them up again, and then wisked them off to another attraction.

It's no wonder that the economy in that region has become so dependent on tourism for their income source that most of the skilled labour has all but disappeared. It's just my opinion, but I think the traditional way of life has been diluted and mostly lost a long time ago.

Well, I'm sure we'll continue to see these kinds of things over the next 10 months of travelling through other developing countries, but hopefully we'll be able to seek out and find the pockets of traditional lifestyle that continue today.

Monday, September 08, 2003

Indian Embassy Pain
Tunis, Tunisia

Ok, so I don't get upset too easily, but the people at the Indian Embassy here in Tunis are really pushing our buttons! We've stuck around Tunis for three extra days to wait for the ambassador to show up, and when he finally does, all he apparently said is that they won't give us a visa to visit India. No reason, no explanation, no nothing. The scatter-brained receptionist who seemed to forget that we were standing in front of her every 15 seconds, offered up the lame explanation that, "Well, Tunisia gives a hard time to Indians, so we do the same for Tunisians." What kind of ridiculous relationship is that? And for crying out loud, what does that have to do with us? Geez.

Anyway, so now we're not really sure where we stand on getting into India after Stacy's wedding in mid-October. Steve Mckinnon might be able to relate. To be honest, we had been warned about Indian government bureaucracy, and unfortunately, when we were back in North America, we ran out of time to get the Indian visa with all the other visa applications we had. Word of advice: get the Indian visa first!!

So, we're right now looking up Indian Embassy information in Greece or Turkey, which will be a pain for us, since we will probably have to double back to either Athens or Istanbul or Ankara. After our one week tour of Tunisia, we will either take a ferry to Sicily for a few days, or fly straight to Malta, not really sure which just yet.

Grrr... I'm in a frame of mind right now to write some strongly worded letters to the Indian High Commission and to cc: the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. Maybe just blogging about this will allow me to vent for a bit, before I attempt to turn this into an international incident! Grumble, grumble...


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