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Several nights in Tunisia

ON YOUR RIGHT, A COMPLETELY ORDINARY ELECTRIC PLANT

TUNISIA | Saturday, 23 May 2009 | Views [386]

I can see the gigantic, navy blue Arabic letters of the train station looming over the south end of Place Barcelone.  We've trundled our bags over from the Marine station and are headed south this morning.  We're excited to be heading down the coast and beginning our circuit of the country, but it was with some mixed feelings that we left the cozy Hotel Bou Fares and whitewashed Sidi Bou Said. 

As we head toward track six, I take in the capacious interior of the station beneath the typical convex curve of its roof.  Train stations take me back to the first days of my traveling as a student in Britain, waiting for trains at Kings Cross station.  Such romantic places, all about possibility. 

We paid the minor premium to buy ourselves seats in the first class coach, but quickly find out that these are not the European or American notions of first class.  We're barely able to find two seats together at the front of the first class car, and are knocking knees with the guys facing us.  But at least we're sitting down. 

I watch the mountains around Tunis eventually give way to the farmland of the Sahel.  The two hours or so pass quicky with reading, dozing, watching the landscape slide by. 

The train station at Sousse seems relatively small and peaceful.  We take a few minutes to collect ourselves and split a Cliff bar before venturing out for a cab.  This brings us to our hijacking du jour. 

We get into the the cab of a twenty-something driver.  I quickly determine that he has a functioning meter.  We skirt the eastern side of the medina as we proceed through the city center.  I had told him that we wanted to go to the Bab Jedid station just a few miles away, where we could catch one of the Sahel Metro trains down to our destination, Mahdia. 

After what seems a couple of miles, Lee and I exchange mildly concerned looks and I reiterate that we want to go Bab Jedid station.  Sahel Metro.  As before, he nods his head in the affirmative and says "Monastir."  "No, Mahdia," I say.  In the midst of many explicatory Arabic words that I don't understand, he says "Monsatir" and "Mahdia," and "Sousse," this last word accompanied by a hand gesture indicating some sort of negation.  Finally, we realize that he's saying there is no Sahel Metro station in Sousse.  He's taking us to Monastir to catch the train.  And as he guessed, we aren't going to make an issue out of it. 

So, southward along the coast to Monastir we go, hoping that we'll be let out at some point near a train station.  As if to compensate for our abduction and inflated fare he makes friendly with us, first pointing out the picture of his daughter hanging from the roof of the cab.  The picture of the cute kid bears an unlikely, pre-fab English caption, "I'm the boss here."  Clearly, we're not the boss here.  Essentially, he's using the kid as a minor human shield.  But ever polite, we provide the requisite compliment.  Lee says "tres joli," as the very words were forming in my mouth. 

As we proceed south to, let us hope, only Monastir, our young driver points to the right side of the road and says "electric."  "Ah," we intone, yes.  An electric plant.  A completely ordinary electric plant.  And to think we might have missed it. 

We're quite relieved when we actually take the turnoff to Monastir.  As we come upon cars, our driver proves rather impatient with most any vehicle that slows our progress, saving his strongest gesticulation and verbal outbursts for those talking on cell phones.

With some relief, we're dropped off safely and in front of what appears to be a train station in Monastir.  The next train is about to leave for points south, so we have to hustle out to the platform and on to a crowded train. 

There's no seats to be had and we have to stand between cars with a few other people.  When the conductor comes round, I can't find my ticket, having lost it somewhere in the near-sprint to the train.  As I'm fumbling, a girl near us tries to intervene on our behalf with the conductor.  I finaly give up and buy another ticket, the conductor affably reminding me to take care of this one. 

The girl, probably in her late teens, attractive and dressed in fairly western fashion, seems happy to have an opportunity to speak to Lee.  When she finds out that we're from Chicago, she alludes to the great international Chicago identifier - at least, perhaps, the female version, the male version being Michael Jordan and/or the Chicago Bulls - asking "Do you know Oprah?"  Well, not exactly.  She also introduces her sister, who's sporting a cast on her left arm.  She's very nice, and I think we're both grateful for the brief, but warm exchange. 

The Hotel Phenix de Mahdia looms gleaming and a bit tacky, west of the medina and the heart of the old town,  as if the detached prow of the zone touristique further up the coast.  After navigating a slightly strange conversation with a gentleman at the desk who expresses his preference for the Tunis medina over that of his native Sfax and also reinforces the national stereotype about Sfaxians being boring, overly industrious types, we let the shiny gold doors of the elevator whisk us up to our very spacious room. 

A small balcony affords a view out to the sea, sort of, if you can imagine the buildings across Avenue Borghuiba not being there.  The view from the rooftop deck requires no such imaginative leaps.  The vista out to sea and toward the medina is unchallenged.  However, the rooftop pool, filled only with discolored rain water, is not exactly giving us come hither glances.  No great loss there, as the accumulating warmth of the train rides and baggage wheeling had already been dissipated in the cool air and strong sea breezes of Mahdia.

It's about a ten minute walk through the relatively new town down Avenue Bourguiba, alive with the sound whizzing and screaming motor scooters.  As we walk through the Skifa el Khala, a sixteenth century reconstruction of the gateway blown up by the Spaniards in 1554 (at that point already 600 years old), I add my own word to our travel lexicon, as Lee had with the squabbit:  toutesphere.  The toutesphere being that distance, that ring around a city center at which one begins to encounter Tunisian commerce at its most aggressive and interactive.  In Mahdia, we enter the toutesphere in the Skifa.  It renders the darkish tunnel of the gateway something of a souvenir gauntlet.  Step lively my friends.

Further on, as we approach the Place du Caire, working our way through a narrow street of souvenir shops, a young man, trying to indentify our nationality, finally comes to his British query, which comes out as "Hi dee ho!"  This spoken in a pretty impressive characature of an upper crust English accent.  Later, sitting in Place du Caire, we laugh every time we hear the "Hi-dee-ho's," particularly the the last vowell sound twisted with so much faux superciliousness.  We dont' buy any of his wares, but we have to give the kid style points. 

The Restaurant el Moez is the sort of place I'd usually walk right by, sitting in quiet alley adjacent to the Skifa, not a midday patron to be found, no food in the glass case at the counter.  But we have read good things about it and we're hungry.  What we assume to be the proprietor, and easy going guy about 40, gets up and sweeps his arm, indicating that we can sit down at any of the modest tables with their red and white checked vinyl tablecloths. 

And a good lunch is had by one and...well, the other one.  Harissa, merguez, fresh fish.  Given the proximity of the sea, the fresh fish isn't a surprise, but the general quality of the meal, consistent with the good reviews, is.  Despite the complete lack of customers and activity in the restaurant - we saw no one working in the restaurant save our host - good food magically emerged from behind the counter.  And who are we to question that?

During our meal, a fairly scruffy local wandered in with whom our host seemed to be on familiar terms.  I thought he looked a bit bohemian, perhaps a local artist.  Lee felt that perhaps it was just a guy who needed a good meal, which would explain why the man came and went without any exchange of money.  That possibility only further endeared the proprietor to me. 

We brave the souvenir shops long enough to buy some postcards and retire to Place du Caire to do some writing.  There seem to be a couple of cafes that utilize the tables and chairs in the Place du Caire.  Early in the afternoon, it's just us and a bunch of local guys.  We order tea from a  waiter who seems straight out of an Agatha Christie novel.  Wearing a fairly formal burgundy waiter's jacket, sporting a narrow mustache, he's diminutive in size goes about his business with a poker face that alters only slightly when he converses briefly with some of the locals.  I like him, but if a dead body is found at any point, I'm pretty sure he's going to be the culprit or know who is.

There's no mayhem, but a swarm of tourists does pass through while we're working at our postcards.  This is the first I've seen such a clear example of a horde of tourists being dropped off by a coach - whether from the nearby zone touristique or an adjacent town I don't know - and moving through en masse through a town center like locusts.  I wonder if they feel like they have gained the flavor of Mahdia in their 20-minute pass.  Once they're gone, the boys in souvenir alley don't look like they were able to sell much.   

A few postcards written and a couple of teas with pine nuts consumed, we wander back out into the perfect, breezy afternoon.  Going in the direction of the far end of the peninsula, it's not far at all to the town fortress, the Borj el Kebir.  It's already closed for the day, which is not much of the loss according to the old guide book, "bleak" and "uninteresting" having figured in the unflattering appraisal.  Although apparently the Borj does offer great views...without, presumably, anyone trying to sell you a carpet. 

We walk past the Borj and then loop back north, leaving the Fatimid Port and furthest extreme of the narrow peninsula, the Cap d'Afrique, for another day.  Meandering back toward the medina along Rue Sidi Jabeur and other close, shady, residential lanes, it's mainly us, local women and children.  I'm guessing these are streets usually not penetrated by the passing hordes from Zone Touristique.  A shame, as the intimate streets are a peaceful way to end an afternoon in Mahdia. 

As we're getting back to the heart of the medina, the thrum of looms can be heard and their products can occasionally seen in open shop doors.   The weaving, silk and otherwise, is supposed to be among the best one can find in Tunisia.

"We're looking at live pictures of a live fire in historic London."  As opposed to live pictures of the fire of 1666?   Live pictures of the Blitz, perhaps? We regard these verbal gems offered up by a CNN correspondent commenting on a live feed of a blaze from historic old London town.  This our pre-dinner and post-nap entertainment, rueful though it may be.  Like so many loudly-declaiming, sub-intelligent tourists we foist upon the word, the commentary of the vacuous woman on CNN, absolutely desperate for a teleprompter, seems a further reminder of why we have become so highly thought of abroad.

Not that we have the market cornered on obnoxious behavior.  On our way to dinner we stop at a patisserie, as has become our wont.   After the gentleman on duty deigns to arise from his chair and wait on us, I indicate what we would like.  Unfortunately, I don't understand the prices and keep offering him many times more than the modest sum we owe. Finally, having exhausted the surefire "if they don't understand your language, speak it more loudly and impatiently" course of action, our kind friend takes the appropriate amount from my open hands, leaving me in the classic pose of tourist supplication:  "here, please take the appropriate of of your strange money from my humble palm." 

After depositing the money in his register, he continues to employ what I can only assume are unfluttering Arabic words as he looks at us, laughs derisively and returns to his chair and television opposite.   I decide that I need to expand my Arabic vocabulary to useful words like...oh, asshole.   Mean people suck.  I fume as we walk toward the restaurant and slowly my male ego calms down.  

By dark of night, the Cafe Sidi Salem is not quite as magical as we hoped it might be.   The restaurant does have tables on terraces that extend down toward the water.   But it's both too cool to sit outdoors - although that hasn't stopped some local men - and there's not enough light to appreciate the view.

The interior is a somewhat smokey, nautically-themed, almost all-male affair, both in terms of the wait staff and handful of customers on hand.  Neither the smoke nor the abundance of testosterone leave Lee feeling particularly sanguine about the place.  We both select pizzas from the menu and pass the wait for our food by gazing at fish tanks, speculating on our few fellow customers and regarding the one waiter who obliviously sits in his strangely-formal gold jacket in the middle of the seating area watching a television turned up quite loudly.  Fortuantely, we do not disturb his viewing. 

The pizzas at least are pretty satisfying.   Not the greatest dining experience, but our bellies are full as we ply the streets back to the hotel, trying to avoid the rampaging motor scooters of death. 

At the far end of the lobby of the Phenix is a small, garish little bar.  Not surprisingly, we find it smokey and patronized exlusively by men.   We each order a beer and take them up to our room.  I'm a bit restless as usual and consider going down for a second beer.  But it's been a pretty full day and we have the Amphiteatre in El Jem and our first louage trip to look forward to tomorrow.   And who knows, perhaps more electric plants.   

 

Tags: mahdia, sousse, tunis, tunisia

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