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Several nights in Tunisia


TUNISIA | Saturday, 9 January 2010 | Views [349]

I like this driver.  Unlike yesterday's driver to El Jem, he's smooth, allowing a good following distance between us and vehicles ahead and isn't prone to passing on hills.   A good way to start what looks to be a long day of traveling.   It's supposed to take us about 90 minutes to get down to Sfax, full of all those overly-industrious Sfaxians, then another four and a half hours to get to Djerba island, our next destination.   And ho-hum, it looks to be another perfect day.

Sfax is bustling.   I'm not that impressed with what I can see as our louage hits the late-morning traffic on Avenue de L'Armee and then takes a right on Avenue Bourguiba.   We skirted the medina, but there was little to see aside from it's buff-colored, crenelated ramparts.   I'm glad we chose to spend our time elsewhere. 

The louage station is some distance from the city center, in an area that has the bleak feeling of an industrial zone.   It's certainly a much larger station than that of El Jem or Mahdia.  We were told that tickets need to be purchased for destinations out of this bigger, more formal station, so I leave Lee with our a bags on a sidewalk and walk into the station's central building.  

The station is buzzing with travelers and drivers, walking to and fro, some sitting in one of the two small cafes.   There are seemingly doors in all directions that lead to other parts of the station's sprawling lot.   I'm a bit overwhelemed by all this activity, but uttering "Djerba?" to a couple of people gets me to a counter where I'm able to purchase tickets for our long ride.  

I hand our small, rectangular tickets with Arabic writing on them to a guy who seems to be the louage wrangler back in the lot.  He directs Lee and I to a waiting van whose side door is open.   We stow our bags and take our positions in the back seat.  Since there's only a couple of more people in the van, Lee decides she has time to use the bathroom before we depart.  

I watch her disappear as she works her away among all the people moving about outside the central building.   A young man, who I assume will be joining us, is standing just outside the open door.  When he turns around and faces me, he gives me a low-key, but not unfriendly "Salaam."  I'm grateful both for the gesture and the fact that it's one of the few Arabic words I can understand.

There's a relatively old guy in the seat in front of me and a woman the other side of middle age enclosed in several layers of clothing in the front seat.  As I wait for Lee to return, another young man approaches the van and begins a sales pitch.  He's hawking perfume.   He tries the woman in front first, but he makes both my friend in the burnoose in the seat ahead and me aware that he's got a fragrance for us as well.  I watch as the man in front of me tries a sample of the stuff; I smile and shake my head when offered a whiff as well.  I'm surprised that the cologne bears an English name which I can read on the box.  I'm even more surprised that my potential new cologne is called "Prison Break."  

Hmm...what pray tell is the smell of a prison break?  Desperation? Sweat? A longing for freedom?  I'm not really intrigued, but my older friend in front of me is having a good time, so much so that he extends his left wrist when half-jokingly offered the female scent.  He sniffs the fragrance and laughs, as do  I and and everyone else.  

It wasn't actually too long after Lee's return that the van filled up in short order and we were off.   As opposed to yesterday's trip to El Jem, which took place on regional, if well-maintained roads, today we're out on what looks like a major highway.   Given the distance we need to cover, I'm happy to see us speeding down an expressway.

Well, I'm happy to see us speeding along, until I see a sign along the right side of the road.   I'm pretty sure it listed Tunis among a couple of other cities and accompanying mileages.   Tunisis is north of Sfax.   Djerba is south.  We're supposed to be heading south.   Lee has already closed her eyes and seems to be dozing.  I don't want to bother her yet, but I have a bad feeling.

And there's another road sign...and...yes, it lists points north.   Oh, shit.  We're going the wrong way.  My mind quickly retraces the steps back to the louage station in Sfax.  When I said Djerba to the guy in the ticket booth, we clearly were not thinking of the same place.  Shit.  I rouse Lee and tell her we are indeed going the wrong way.  

Excerpts from travel misadventure #2:  Not knowing how far north we might get taken before the next stop, wondering if I'm going to have to ask the van to stop prematurely at some point.  Anticipating that embarrassment.  Very relieved to see our driver taking the El Jem exit. Determining that there are no louages going south from El Jem any time soon.  Not really all that happy to see the amphitheatre again quite so soon.  Trundling bags over to the rail station.   Trying to figure out when the next train to Sfax might be, the crowded waiting room, trying to read the rail chart on the wall, asking the ticket taker who says something that contradicts the chart on the wall, bothering another guy at the station in his office, who's actually pretty nice about it.  His consulting a book with train times and saying there is a train to Sfax within the hour. Looking for the bus station in the midst of all this, supposedly just across the street, but seeing no building that seems devoted to the purpose.  Might as well be looking for snipe, the mythical jackalope or a pretty unicorn for all the luck I'm having.   No longer having it in me to ask directions or questions of strangers.   Minor breakdown back at rail station after unsuccessful unicorn expedition. Lee, taking all this much better than me, taking over information quest. Inquiry of rail time again from nice man in office.  Reiteration that there is upcoming trail bound for urban Charybdis which is Sfax.   Armed with certainty, again requesting two tickets for said train from lounging ticket agent.   As if first such interaction was figment of my imagination, tickets dispensed without incident.   Lee in floppy sun hat, sitting on somewhat weather-beaten bench, slats Tunisian blue, surrounded by our bags, smiling as I take her picture.  Grateful to be traveling with her.   

So, Sfax it is then.   We were happy enough to see the much-debated train arrive, that the unavailability of seats wasn't a major disappointment.  We've had to stand amidst a samll crowd and everyone's bags at one end of a car for the hour-plus ride south. 

The pedestrianized, smoothly-tiled delta of the Boulevard Republique turns out to be but a short walk from the rail station down Avenue Bourguiba.   This is the heart of the compact, gridded, French new town.   While it may be a bit bland by big city standards, it does look more cosmopolitan than I was giving it credit for earlier.   All we need now is a place to sleep tonight. 

There's no room at the inn, at least at the fairly glitzy-looking Hotel Thyna, which had orginally been on our itinerary.   But then we decided to scorn Sfax, which I felt was now scorning us back.   Fortunately, there's lots of hotels in the area, and any worries about being homeless tonight are dispelled at the nearby Hotel Colisee.  

The Colisee seems cozy and kind of old-fashioned.  I'm not entirely comfortable with the old-fashioned practice of taking our passports, but I don't imagine there's much to worry about.   We're certainly happy to be shown into our third floor room.   But before we have a chance to decamp completely and fully appreciate the, shall we say, eccentric decorative scheme, we realize the toilet doesn't work.   Or perhaps I just don't know how to use it.  When I turn the handle at the side of the tank, nothing happens.  I assume the float's not working, a chain is broken, or something.   I take the lid off, and while nothing looks broken, there's next to no water in the tank.  Are we supposed to put water in ourselves?   Perhaps with the little hose just adjacent to the toilet.   Is that what it's for?   Or is it just some sort of old world bidet?   Well, in my hands, it's a device to soak the floor, which is what happens when I turn it on. 

Back down to our old friends at reception we go.   I fully expect that the hotel worker who accompanies us back up to our room will show me the error of my ways, but he can't make the toilet work either.   His boss indicates that we are to be shown to a new room on five.   Grateful that we had not unpacked further, we cram ourselves and bags into the small elevator.  

Ah, the elevator.   Actually, it is the elevator panel which fascinates.  It's a sinuous burgundy panel on the stainless (though smudgy) steel wall of the elevator.   Some floors actually have a black button, discernable silver floor number and brail explication thereof.   However, not every floor fares so well.  In the spaces where there should be buttons for the ground and forth floor buttons, one sees a small, rectangular void backed by a jumble of colorful wires.   Instead of a drearily predictable "3" in the third floor space, there is instead a mysteriously placed down arrow button.  As if the subject of recent surgery, our very own fifth floor space is covered with electrical tape.  We decide to press the button for six and carry our bags down to five. 

As if to compensate for the dark corridor down which we're directed on the fifth floor, we find some rather bold dashes of color in our room.   Lee says she likes the place, she can see signs of it's former colonial elegance.   That seems a generous assessment to me, but I like that she can appreciate the room.  We've got a t.v. stand with no t.v. in our very compact sleeping area, drapes and bedspread in varying patterns of the same yellow and green and then there's the bathroom. 

Mind you, the toilet functions perfectly well.  But in a scene reminiscent of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I regard a towel rack that holds the only two towels assigned to the room, of such a size that they can only aspire to be hand towels when they grow up.   On my left, an earnestly fraying cloth in stripes of white and that ominipresent blue, bordered in black.   On my right, in bold contrast, a pink towel with vertical pattern of red, orange and white rectangles.   All of this against a dizzying floral tile pattern, one big gold and turquoise flower per square.   Wow.   I might leave the place damp, but it does not lack for personality. 

This is kind of my idea of dining hell, but I was too hungry to seek out another restaurant for our late lunch.   And this sandwich is pretty good.   There were surprisingly no good options that we could see on either side of the broad Boulevard Republique, so we came around the corner to this shop on the Avenue Ali Belhoune, just across the street from the south rampart of the medina and the Bob Diwan gate.  What I assume to be the proprietor, working behind a kind of fixed street vendor set-up in this open-air entry and seating area, beckoned us in and directed us upstairs to an covered seating area.  Perhaps he thought he was doing us a favor, but the small room's tables were strewn with wrappers and left over bits of sandwich and a happy population of flies were working the room.  

So, back down here we came to have at our sandwiches, sans napkins and utensils.  After we sat down and started to work at our messy but delcious sandwiches, Lee went back to the sandwich preparation area, a somewhat disturbing mess itself, but could find neither napkins nor utensils.   Fortuantely, some kind women at an adjacent table recognized our plight and gave us their forks.   If only there were napkins.   We wipe our greasy hands on the wax paper in which our spicy, pocket sandwiches were served.   By meal's end, we're both very much in need of a few most towlettes.  But we're no longer hungry. 

The days trials continued as my eyes grew increasinly irritated before we could get to the Bob Diwan gate.   I realize that I probably rubbed my eyes with one of my harrissa-coated hands.   Thank goodness the Colisee is close by.   We actually are able to wait out a short rain shower while I clean my contacts and we both freshen up. 

Through the Bab Diwan gate, past a platform on which a group of musicians are playing what sounds like traditional Arabic music (amplified very loudly)and past yet another cafe full of men mesmerized by a football match on t.v., we're in the Sfax medina.   It's been a long day, but I'm glad we got to see this medina, apparently used in the English Patient because of its relative authenticity and unspoiled-ness.   As we were led to believe, it truly is a place where some of the people of Sfax still live and work.

The Sfax medina is essentially a big rectangle with lanes running at right angles to each other.   How could one lose one's sense of direction here?  Well, easily enough actually.  

 We do well enough as we head due north up Rue de la Grande Mosque, past the eponymous building, into the Souk des Etoffes (the fabric market), every bit the tunnel of rich color you would expect.  We're kind of excited to check out the Blacksmiths Souk at the northern end of the medina.  Well, we were excited, as there is mainly an empty space where that old-time souk used to be.   Not so with the food market, actually through the northern rampart and Bab Jebli.  It's abuzz with people, presumably shopping for the evening and weekend ahead.  

 I turn my digital camera to its video setting so I can record some of the calls of vendors.  I'm more interested in the sights at this moment, but when I point the camera at a group of tomato stalls, the sight one of the young vendors in a red rugby shirt smiling back me and pointing - at what I cannot determine - is like a warm ray of light breaking through an indifferent gray sky. 

As our medina divagations continue, we decide to step through another of the main gates.  Is is Bab Dharbi?  Bab Chergui?  I dont' know - it's one of the Babs.   Much as I think I know where we're going, which gate we've just walked through and where we have just re-entered after seemingly walking around much of the periphery of the walled city, I have no idea.   Only when we get back to the main lane and find ourselves all the way back at the food market do I have any sense of where we're at.  Again, I'm humbled after a bit of medina hubris, thinking my sense of direction would not fail me.  

Discarding uptight notions about things like, you know...place and direction, we wander freely for the remainder of our late-afternoon time in the medina.   We spend much of this time walking quiet lanes given to residences and shops.  We see a few examples of clothing and fabric artisan shops, usually some sort of front counter, behind which would be a small ladder leading to crampt-looking loft a half storey above, with a couple of workers obliviously plying their trades.

At one point, not too far removed from the Souk des Etoffes, we happen upon on a narrow stairway and decide to try our luck.  It leads us up to a rooftop, which essentially is all the rooftops of the medina.  Not that our immediate view affords much in the way of secret beauty of surprising vistas.  In our immediate range of vision is some random garbage, a few satellite dishes and a blue street sign (Rue des Aghlarites)detached from a nearby lane. However, we do now have an excellent view of the minaret of the Great Mosque.

The minaret is exceptional not only for the mass of it's square tower, but for the strange birthday-cake-like nature of its upper reaches, the minaret set back near its peak to a more squat version of itself, that topped by a little cupola on four columns through which the muezzin would formerly call the faithful to prayer (visible loud speaks now can be seen, as a muezzin is no longer responsible for calling above the din of a modern city).  A fairly intense horizontal band of religious inscriptions is set amongst other bands of stylized geometric patterns, one row of which looks like a series of round speakers rendered in the tan stone.

Even better than a good view, we're now standing standing right next to a mosque, the Sidi Karray, in the quiet western side of the medina.  Little good it does as though, as we are as ever a couple of heathens figuratively pressing our cold little noses against the window.  Which is to say we can't go in.  But there are lots of great doors around the area of the mosque, varying in both color and design, in contrast to the fairly uniform faded blue of most of the medina's doors and frames.

While we're milling around the Sidi Karray Mosque, a young woman coming out of a shop gets our attention.  We're made to understand that there's a good view to be had from within what looks to be a dress shop.  She's so oddly, amiably insistent, that the skepticism we have already developed for such come-ons is overcome.   We walk into the dress shop, to the back of the dress shop, back to the front of the dress shop...not only do we see no door or stairway that would lead us up to the supposed view, none of the few young women working in the shop try to sell us anything.   They smile cryptically at us, we smile confusedly back and walk out of the store, not at all sure what that was all about.

A far less ambiguous and more satisfying exchange occurs a short while later while we're back near the middle of the medina.   We're stopped at the convergence of two lanes and Lee is checking something about her camera.   I see a fairly old woman walking toward us up the narrow street, balancing a broad, flat metal pan full of pastry.   My attention returns to Lee, as I want to make sure she moves aside so we don't get in the woman's way.   By the time I look up, the woman has with mysterious grace reached up, grabbed two pieces of the pastry still warm from the oven and hands them to me.   This all happens so quickly and I'm so taken aback that I can barely nod in thanks to the woman, whose recognition occurs with the most subtle of smiles, before she turns the corner and is gone, like some sort of benign pastry-bringing apparition.   No overblown difficulty of the day can compete with the pleasure that simple gesture provided to me.   

What is this, Tunisian independence day or something?  We're back at the Colisee, among our tacky drapes and bedspread and half-packed bags, and the streets below are a cacophony of car horns.  And yes, as it turns it, this is a Tunisian independence day, March 20 being the date of their independence from France in 1956.

The unending salute of horns is boisterous crescendo to a quiet evening, when Sfax's reputation as a less-than-happening urban center has asserted itself.   We went out in the early evening into the new town across Avenue Borguiba, but could find neither a couple of the restaurants we hand in mind nor any other place that looked inviting.  There were certainly a few groups of people we encountered on the streets, but it all seemed very quiet for a Friday night.

We finally settled on Au Bec Fin, where we were the only patrons, save a lone male diner.  Our waiter paced incessantly around the modest, rectangular dining room during our eminently average meal.   We then consoled ourself with some ice cream at a sleek corner store on the broad boulevard, within site of the Bob Diwan gate of the medina.  

When we got back to the Colisee, we inquired about the hotel bar.   Not open, was the answer we got from the desk, this despite the clamor heard from within.  A staff party perhaps?  Who knows.   But it probably would have just been another smoky, male bastion.   

To the soundtrack of celebratory horn honking, muted as much as it can be by the the closed French doors of our balcony, we're taking occasional nips of Jameson from my flask, reading our respective books and thinking about the day ahead tomorrow.  I hope sheet of bus times I have is accurate and we can make it to Djerba at last.   

Tags: el jem, mahdia, sfax

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