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Several nights in Tunisia

IN WHICH WE STRUGGLE WITH THE MEANING OF FISH AND SHRIMP ALIKE

TUNISIA | Wednesday, 20 January 2010 | Views [601]

Well, perhaps we'll try again at 7:00.  It's 6:30 and all is dark inside the restaurant of the Colisee.   After yesterday's misadventures, I'm especially anxious to get going and be at the bus station for what I hope will the the 8:00 departure of a coach for points south.  But I know Lee does not want to face the day without her morning coffee, and I don't really fancy starting the long journey on an empty stomach myself.  

At least the room is now open.   It's about 7:00 now.  We find one table that is set and hope that service will soon arrive.  The room has itself has the feeling of being hung over: there is redolence of too much smoke and drink; bleary attempts at tidying up have proven less than convincing.  It doesn't seem happy to face the day.   As if sensing this, we keep our voices low as we discuss the prospects of getting our meal. 

We're somewhat pleasantly surprised when our sleepy waiter does appear. After coffee, there is fresh bread as well.  I'm not sure who was laboring at some obscenely early hour this morning to produce the blessed loafs, but they have my love.   Caffeinated and reasonably well-fed, we're more ready to face the day than the room we're quitting.

Why is that man tapping the glass?  Does he not want us to sit down? Isn't that what this bench is for?  We're in the SNTRI station, the national bus line.   It looks like something between a standard American bus station and what I imagine the inside of a large mosque to look like. There's lots of space, a large area behind the glass where our tap-happy friend stands with another ticket agent and it all seems quite clean and spare, a feeling heightened by plentiful amounts of white, gleaming marble on the floor and walls.  

Apparently he wants to make sure that we don't miss our bus.  We were quite relieved upon arriving via taxi to find out that there is an 8:00 bus as my schedule indicated.  It's not supposed to leave for 25 minutes yet, but perhaps we have the look of hapless tourists who will screw up our own plans if given half a chance.  I'd love to argue with the man, but....We dutifully pick up our bags and move out the door toward which we're directed.  

It's a sparsely populated coach.  I'm surprised to be on public transportation in Tunisia and have so much space to myself.   Although space is a relative thing.  We're actually scrunched in a middle row of the bus.  We were in a more capacious row toward the back, but Lee noticed soon after our departure that there was a pronounced shimmy at the rear of the vehicle.   So, I followed her up several rows to a place that would be perfectly comfortable if not for these damned inconvenient legs of mine.  Having finished with Hemmingway at the Colisee, I start a novel by Amin Malouf, The First Year After Beatrice, and try to forget the minor discomfort.   

Actually, it's easy enough to forget the lack of leg space, beyond the novelty of the new book.   I feel somehow assured by the formality of the coach and uniformed driver.  I'm even more assured to know that we're heading in right direction and won't need to change vehicles before we get to Djerba island.  It's a generally younger crowd on the bus this Saturday morning. There are three 20-something kids to our left, two giggly, prodding girls frequently challenging the surly machismo of their male counterpart.  An attractive young woman toward the front, dressed in a jean jacket over a colorful sweater smiles back to me while she's briefly standing up and happens to look back.  As for the situation outside the bus, I'm really coming to expect these perfect days, the morning's already plentiful light illuminating the increasingly arid landscape as we speed south.  

The uniformed driver who I earlier found assuring is less so once we get on a main road.  He handles the bus like he's driving a compact car, making sharp turns, passing up hills and tailgating before doing so.  I wonder if there's something Arab in this manner of driving. Just as apparently Arabs like or even need closeness and jostling when walking about in urban environments, does it apply to driving as well?   Everyone seems to drive this way, pulling up to the very back of a vehicle ahead before making a pass when the opportunity presents itself.  It's the sort of thing that  would draw angry blaring of horns, obscene gestures or even gunfire in America.   Here, nary a honk.  Interesting. 

We made a pit stop some miles back, about an hour into our drive.   We had the chance to relieve ourselves and get a snack at a roadside cafe. As I look at Lee enjoying her tasty stuffed bread, I'm wishing that I had one as well.

Not far north of Gabes I begin to notice makeshift trestle tables set up along the right side of the road.  I see groupings of these tables periodically, piled with plastic containers of various sizes.   Is it water they're selling?  I assume so, but the often discolored containers would not seem to make any water contained therein very appealing.  

About two and a half hours into our journey, our bus is making it's way through the relative sprawl of Gabes.  It's not supposed to be a very interesting city, and little from from my vantage point seems to argue against that appraisal.  We wait for nearly a half hour in the crowded lot of the station on the western side of Gabes, gathering point for both louages and buses.   We get off the bus but don't stray far away in the dusty lot.  It's not even eleven yet, but I'm ready to be on Djerba.  In the immortal words of restive young hostages to road trips everywhere, are we there yet?

The bus left the station at Gabes with a few more people than it carried into town.   Now it's more than full as we head east toward the coast and Djerba.  I was surprised to see us stop a couple of times at seemingly unmarked spots at intersections with side roads.   The second such stop brought us many more riders.   Our driver had to come back and help negotiate bodies into rows and seats.

I was somewhat incensed to see the kid to our left smile and feign sleep to avoid having to share the seat to side.  Fortunately, the driver persisted and roused him from his pretend sleep, ushering a rather large woman into the seat next to him.   He was more than a little chagrined.  I tried to contain my pleasure at his discomfiture, but his young female companions made no such attempt at hiding their amusement.   Ah, little moments of justice.

The girls traveling with our surly friend further endeared themselves to Lee and me by helping one of our more recently-arrived passengers with her restless child.   The mother of the boy was actually quite upset when she saw how crowded was the bus.   She returned to the front of the  vehicle and proceeded to loudly give the driver a piece of her mind.  But there was not much to be done.  Her three or four-year-old boy was going to be forced to sit on her lap. 

Well, we could all see how that was going to go, and the boy's pain was probably going to be shared with us all.   One of the girls then volunteered to take the boy.   The offer was made in such an open and friendly manner that the grateful mother accepted quite readily.   The two girls then proceeded to babysit after a fashion, charming and mollifying the boy into forgetting his troubles.  We were both impressed and grateful.

I wondered how often in their future lives these young women would have to laugh off the stupid machismo of men in their lives or play diplomat with aggrieved children.  Godspeed, ladies. 

As it happens, the name of the young woman toward the front of the coach, she of the nice smile, jean jacket and colorfully-striped sweater, is Raja.   I know this because I'm looking at Lee and Raja converse atop the ferry crossing the narrow strait between Jorf on the mainland and Ajim on the Djerba, much as it sounds like a relay between minor Star Wars characters.

When the bus alit at Ajim, we all eventually disembarked, waiting for our our turn on the ferry.   The queue of cars for the crossing was rather distressing, but our bus was allowed to pull into a much shorter line.  Before long our coach and it's dispersed passengers were on the way, leaving the barren cliffs of Ajim behind.  

Raja had quickly struck up a conversation with Lee shortly after we got off the bus and stood near she and her mother.   Emboldened by how the exchange transpired for the few minutes while we were waiting for the ferry, Raja grasped Lee's hand once we were on the ferry and led her to the top deck so they could speak in earnest.  It was a sweet gesture to observe. 

So I have been keeping my distance, letting the conversation take place freely, commemorating the occasion with a few photos.   It's cool on the top deck, catching what wind as we are across the narrow strait, Gulf of Gabes to our left, Gulf of Bou Grara on our right.  

Finally, I'm invited to join the conversation.  I'm introduced to Raja, who's English is more than serviceable.  As ever, I contrast this to my Arabic, which is less than existent.  She's from the Kerkennah Island, off Sfax.  She and her mother are going to Djerba for a wedding.   

Before long, we're docking at Ajim.  We all scurry back along the narrow walkway and down the stairway to the floor of the ferry.  We take our seats and without much delay, our coach is making it's way through the modest settlement of Ajim.  

As we head north across the island toward Houmt Souk, I look out across the arid landscape of the island.  Apparently, the island is  made up largely of family farms.  I can see the occasional white, domed, fortress-like home, each called a houch, presiding over its parcel of land, called a menzel.  Given the upheavals and invasions the island has seen over time, the fact that each home looks like its own little blockish fort is no accident.

The drive to Houmt Souk passes quickly.   When it comes time to disembark, we say goodbye to Raja and her mother, who positively oozes goodwill.  Raja encourages Lee to e-mail her or even call her while she's on the island.   

Allah be praised, we have a room for the next couple of nights.  We were unable to get through to the hotel yesterday when our plans changed.  But with a not-terribly-stern look, the gentleman at the desk of the Hotel Dar Faiza informs us that our reservation can be honored for the next couple of nights.  A glance at the abundance of keys on the board behind the desk indicates we had little to worry about.   

The concept of the hotel or motel room is a funny thing.  Perhaps from changing residences so often, I really tend to regard any place where I lay my large head, even for a night or two, with the reverence of a home. Of course, some places draw you in more quickly and deeply than others. Not ten minutes into my residency at the Hotel Dar Faiza, I can say beyond any reasonable allowance, I love this place.  

Like Sidi Bou Said, the hotel is a veritable architectural study in white and Tunisian blue.  The flat, white-washed structure highlighted with railings, shutters and doors of the omnipresent blue.  Our room is up a staircase on the second floor, allowing access to the roof of the building where we can roam freely.  Look out our door and you see, in the continuing counterpoint of blue and white, a dramatic marabout-like structure against the blue (is it ever any other color?) sky, complete with a dome at its top.  This one seems purely decorative and is certainly doing its job.

Our room is all simple elegance.   The blue from outside is picked up in our curtains and bedspreads, each with simple, white, geometrical designs. The only break in the pattern is in the transition to a deeper, more navy blue of our prim, separate bed frames, simple bedside tables, chairs and the small desk adjacent to the bathroom.  As with Tunis' exquisite suburb, the simple color pattern seems perfectly suited to a sunny, seaside dwelling.

Yes, I do love this place, much as the low threshold to the bathroom seems likely to render me unconscious at some point during our stay at the Dar Faiza.  

We're across the street from the Borj el Kebir, a plain enough looking fort for all the excitement and bloodshed its seen over the centuries.  In 1560, Phillip II's armada was destroyed off the coast.  They retreated to the fort only to be massacred by the Turks.  Very bad winners, the Turks piled their skulls, hundreds, perhaps thousands, into a great tower just up the beach.  The skulls were finally moved to a more respectful spot beneath the ground in 1848.  These days, the handsomely weatherbeaten fort, along with the handful of palms growing in front of it, seems placed there to provide some aesthetically-pleasing foreground to anyone looking or photographing in the direction of the sea beyond. 

It would be mighty easy to hang around this lovely place and wile away the afternoon, read a bit, perhaps take a nap, but the march of the big trip is sometimes a merciless thing. 

It's an easy 10 or 15 minute walk into Houmt Souk.   Despite the fact that it's not high season, the island's only real city seems pretty alive with activity, touristic and otherwise.   This is supposed to be one of the great beach locations in Tusnisia - the zone touristique mercifully cannot be seen from the Dar Faiza - but as pleasing as the weather is, I don't imagine the 60 degree temperatures and steady sea breeze are enticing many people into the surf. So, everyone is roaming around Houmt Souk.  

We skirt the souks for the most part, leaving those for later if we have the energy.  However,there's such a prevalence of colorful pottery being sold, the like of which we've seen plenty of elsewhere, that one can hardly be in Houmt Souk without tripping over the stuff.  The interesting thing is that we see as many Arab people who seem to be on vacation as Europeans or other visitors.   While we're eating our lunch upstairs in a restaurant in the village center, the dining room is given over mostly to a long table of what look to be a well-to-do Arab family.  

We walk another 10 or 15 minutes down one of the relatively narrow main roads south out of the village center to Hara Kebira, one of Jerba's two Jewish settlements.  In fact, the island is the only place where Jews have remained in Tunisia at all.  We have read that Jerba's Jewish and Muslim communities coexist pretty peacefully.  The road down which we turn into the neighborhood is not open to traffic.  There's a concrete barrier and a couple of police officers posted at the corner.  They give us a cursory glance, but otherwise we wander freely. 

The color scheme certainly doesn't change in this small network of converging streets which form the neighborhood.  The buildings seem generally to put their backs to the streets, giving the area more of an austere feeling than that of Houmt Souk.  We do see quite a number of hands and fish.  The Jerban Jews, like so many of their Arab counterparts, are wary of the evil eye, traditionally,  a suspicious look of envy, especially when it comes from strangers.   We see a number of both blue fish and hands of Fatima (a hand with thumb and index finger meeting to form the shape of an eye) against the white background of walls to the either side of doorways.   

Even after having read a bit about these symbols, I'm not sure what the fish are all about.  Fertility?  General good luck?  I'm at a loss, although the hand and fish are obviously thought of as warding off the bad vibes.   Beyond the blue painted fish and the Hand of Fatima on walls, we also espy a series of white fish and plain hands on a railing that fronts a second floor patio.  

The other unusual flourish of the otherwise non-descript neighborhood is the street names which provide a break from the standard Avenues Borguiba, Farhat Hached, those bearing the dates of significant moments in the country's history, etc.   In Hara Kebira, the streets are actually named after fruits and nuts.

Down one of the fruity or nutty streets, we are surprised to happen upon three of our fellow riders from the long bus ride.  We pass the two young women and the reluctant seat sharer.  There seems to be a minor acknowledgment on both sides and we go about our tourist business.

 A less ambivalent acknowledgment occurs when we come upon a few children playing in an adjacent street.   Two kids are clambering on what I assume is their family's white van.  I raise my camera in both hands in a questioning gesture.  They smile back at me placidly and I take their picture:  a boy on the roof of the car, round of head, with closely cropped hair, he with the more blatant smile of the two, dark pants and red and black fleece, recumbent, legs crossed in front of him, leaning back on his arms; a beautiful little girl with hair nearly as short, an enigmatic smile as she twists back toward the camera, seemingly standing on one of the windshield wipers, muted pink sweater with some sort of serpentine pattern across the chest, purple wrap around her waist, over a long black skirt, revealing at its base two long socks, pastel rainbows of horizontal stripes.  

I lower the camera and wave as the chldren continue to smile.  We go on our way.  It's a very nice way to end our brief exploration of Hara Kebira.

At first blush, the souk area of the village looked rather modest, but as we're wandering around, particularly through the covered passageways of the qaysarriya, we're suprised at the extent of it all.  It's rather more quiet in the northern, qaysarriya half, which is welcome thing here at day's end.  As we walk into the more popular souks, we're subjected to the nationalistic inquiries to which we've already grown accustomed:  Ca va?  Deutsch?  English?  We slow enough to tell one shopkeeper that we're actually American.  This elicits the usual surprise, but we're also kind of touched when he gets around to the happy subject of our new president.  He says "Obama, he's one of us," patting his chest.   Encouraging.

Crevette?  What's Crevette?  Oh, the rigors of the restaurant menu when one's French is feeble.   We're at the exceedingly cozy Il Papagallo restaurant, maybe half way up the road between the Dar Faiza and the village center.  It's walls are esentially glass, so aside from the ample amounts of vegetation that are hung between the tables and upright windows, we seem a glowing little culinary oasis in the midst of the Jerban night.  The coziness is only enhanced by the prominent wood oven. 

The same wood oven is supposed to produce delicious pizzas, but even I decide to opt for something else.  Our question about the crevette is passed on to our waitress and then to a couple of guys at an adjacent table.   In an amusing, somewhat confusing roundelay in English, French and Italian, we are made to believe that crevette is shrimp.  Well and good, but we're both having pasta, me some carbonara, Lee a plate of deciedly green pasta.  Both dishes are delicious and filling.  We conclude our comfortable decadence with a shared panna cotta with caramel.  

As we walk back to the Dar Faiza amid the steady sea breeze, I'm feeling a bit like the lotus eaters to which this island likes to lay claim.   I feel so far away from home and really don't have the least desire to leave this place.      

Tags: djerba, sfax

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