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Several nights in Tunisia

BREAD FOR EVERYONE

TUNISIA | Tuesday, 9 February 2010 | Views [508]

Oh, sadness, sadness.   It's Monday morning on the Island of Jerba.  The restaurant of the otherwise charming Hotel Dar Faiza seems especially smoky this morning, last night's lugubrious congregation still asserting it's unhappiness on us.  We're excited to our make way west, hopefully cross the great salt lake of the Chott el Jerid and get to Tozeur, be closer to the desert part of Tunisia.  But we're not particularly excited to contemplate the long day of louage riding.  Nor is one at all eager to leave this white-washed haven by the sea.  One of the hotel cats looks at us from the doorway with curiousity, but no empathy.  

It appears as though the Chott el Jerid is out, at least for today.  In trying to put together an itinerary from my guidebook, I assumed we would catch a louage to Gabes, then another to Kebili, finally a last leg across the glittering, if largely dry lake to Tozeur.  But when we said we're bound for Tozeur, we were instructed to climb into a red-striped -the efficient louage system designates local vans with a yellow stripe, vans that work within a gourvernorat with a blue stripe and those that do inter-city duty with a red stripe - van bound for Gafsa, a good portion of the way across the south central section of the country, bypassing Gabes altogether.   Once again, I wish could converse in Arabic, ask if it would be possible to follow the itinerary I had in mind.   But that would probably result in confusion for everyone, so Lee and I get in the back of the Gafsa louage and wait for it to fill so we can depart. 

We've been lucky thus far in catching rides via the louage, but our van bound for Gafsa takes a while to fill up.  As we're waiting, and I'm reading my way toward the end of The First Year After Beatrice, we get an interesting scene of Arab manhood through the windshield.  There's three men involved in some sort of negotiation, two fairly burly guys with their backs to us, one with head concealed in a red and white scarf, the other in a green checia.  They're facing a guy with salt a pepper hair, some of which is visible under his more traditional red checia, a bit more sprouting over his lip in an equally traditional mustache.  All wear fairly heavy jackets, not burnooses, beneath their scarves. 

At last, our motley ridership is in place.  On the bench seat in front of us, there's a women and her young boy sitting next to an old woman, the folds of whose outer garments is matched by the wrinkles on her visage. She seems wary of the mother and son and looks pretty severe in general. In the front seat, our driver, a handsome man in his late 40's, with his short, dark hair and brown leather jacket looking very much the pilot. Next to him an odd pair:  a slightly reptilian looking Italian man, very tan, perhaps in his mid to late 50's; next to him a Tunisian kid, perhaps a few decades younger, sporting a black jacket with "Player" emblazoned on its back.  We have read, both fiction (we both read Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery, set primarily in Hammamet, before embarking on the trip) and non-fiction accounts of foreign men taking Tunisian boys as lovers, much as homosexuality is officially said not to exist in the country.  I wonder if our "Player" is the consort of the Italian guy in the sunglasses.

Finally, we're off, reversing Saturday's trip from Ajim to Houmt Souk.  It feels great to making progress at last...until we have to stop in Ajim for the ferry and wait.  And wait.  We have time to get out and use the bathroom one last time before we stop who knows when later.   We have time to patronize the souvenir shops positioned at the entrance to the ferry for just such intervals as these.  We have time for lots of things.  Oh, it's going to be a long day.  

It's our turn at last to take a place on a ferry bound for the mainland. Shortly after our boat sets out, a young Guarde Nationale officer, in his crisp, green uniform starts to make the rounds.  When he gets to our van, he examines the identification cards of all the Tunisians and asks for the passports of we foreigners.  I expect him to take a quick look and return them, but instead he takes the reddish-brown Italian passport of the Mr. Suntan in the front seat and our blue Yankee passports and walks off.  Somebody needs to play at policeman.   I'm not at all thrilled about this and am increasingly nervous as time passes and our passports are not returned.  Lee, for her part, seems unfazed.   Finally, as we're  approaching landfall at Jorf, the humorless Guarde Nationale officer nonchalantly walks over to our louage and returns our documents.

It's more than two hours getting to Gabes, although we do not stop in the city.  As I struggle to find or maintain comfortable positions in the back of the louage, we proceed into the region of the country known as the Jerid.  The Jerid reminds me of the desert Southwest at home.   The arid landscape is largely monochrome, scrub vegetation often the only indication of life.  Although as we continue west, purple wildflowers begin to dot and enliven the countryside.  

I look longingly out the window to my left, in the direction of the desert proper, the Grand Erg Oriental, some 100 miles south.   It seems a shame to be this close to the sand sea and not have the experience of being in its midst, but we have only so much time.   In wanting to do something of a circuit around the country, but still linger long enough in a few places to feel like we've actually been there, tough decisions had to be made.

We finally stop west of Gabes at a cafe, one of a few businesses of a modest strip.  At the back of a dusty dining area at the rear of the cafe, I wait for the toilet to come available.  

When the locks clicks and the door opens, I see the entire female contingent of our louage appear.  I'm not sure if the younger woman has been helping the older woman, or if the latter was helping the mother with her boy, but it appears that they have become much more friendly than first appeared to be the case.   The toilet is a stand-up affair, the like of which Lee later tells me she saw more than once in India.  There's no toilet as we know it, just a square, canted ceramic base in the floor with a relatively small hole in the middle.  There's a small tap on the left side of the stall with a bucket.  I'm glad that my needs require nothing more than what I can usually do standing up.  In retrospect, the two woman who preceeded me have my sympathy.

Before we depart, Lee and I examine the offerings in the restaurant's refrigerated case near the front.   As we hesitate between what choices we might make and the words to use to describe what we want, our friend from the louage, the "Player" intervenes and communicates with the guy behind the case on our behalf.   His warm, cackling laughter has been growing on me as I occasionally observe the goings on in the front seat.  I don't know if he is in some way working with the driver, but I'm kind of touched that he's looking out for us.   I decide on a piece of cake and an orange Fanta; Lee, as is her wont, decides on healthier fare. 

At some further point in the infinite, arid distance between Gabes and Gafsa, we slow down and stop at another small strip of nondescript buildings, something between homes and businesses.   Our driver gets out and begins a conversation with a gentleman before a kind of garage space.  Some green beans or peas are eventually brought out and weighed on a crude scale, the chains and "bowls" of which kind of fascinate me.

 When the driver comes back to the louage, the old woman in front of  us gets his attention.  She wants some as well.  She digs into the folds of her outer garments, produces some money and gives it to the driver.  While the second purchase is taking place, the Player, who had previously gotten out and joined the parley, comes back to the van with a handful of the peas and passes them around.  Like the buildings before us, the peas are more functional than appealing, at least in the state in which presented to us.  But it's a nice gesture to share with everyone, and I'm in airplane passenger mode, in which I will eat any edible item put before me, lest I never find sustenance again.   For once, I attack a vegetable with more vigor than Lee, who's clearly seen and tasted better peas in her life.

It's not yet 2:30 in the afternoon, but it feels like we've been crossing Tunisia for a couple of days.  The mood is pretty sleepy in the louage.  I struggle to change the position of my legs in the limited space. Right.  Knee.  Very.  Stiff.

And for the love of God, we're stopping again.  Once again, our driver trots across the road.  But this time, I don't know what he's doing.   There's a building removed some distance from the roadside, but he's crouched before a cardboard box placed fairly near the asphalt.  He opens the flaps of the box and pulls out...some bread.  Now he's getting some bread.  At this point in the day, I wish he would take care of his shopping after dropping us in Gafsa.   I would like to get to Tozeur before nightfall.   He takes some money out of his pocket and places it in the same box.   As he's about ready to cross the road back to us, a man walks out of the building.  He speaks, gets the drivers attention.  The two exchange friendly waves and our man trots back to the louage.  

And don't I feel like a heel.  The bread is for us.   He's purchases one large, still-warm piece of bread for each row of the vehicle.  Ours is passed back to us with a smile from the old woman in front of us.   Lee and I both take turns greedily with our piece.  Actually, it's quite large and we're surprised that it's all for us.  It's funny how your notions of luxury can change.  The bread has a fairly tough crust, but is thick and crumbly on the inside, somewhat like cornbread.  

A little more food in my belly, I reflect on the transaction I just witnessed.  And I'm charmed by how it bespeaks informality, local knowledge and implicit trust.

I may never walk properly again, and I am still fairly desperate to be at our hotel in Tozeur, but I'm grateful for this experience.  I now feel a strange bond with these people of whose existence I was unaware this morning.   It's not an experience we could have had driving around the country by ourselves or as part of a tour.

Finally, we're pulling into Gafsa.  As I look about me, I see nothing more appealing than the fact that it is a destination reached.  Before we get to the louage station, we stop on a street corner in the town center.  The Italian and his young friend get out, the latter smiling back to us and giving a wave goodbye.  Godspeed Player.  

I'm half-asleep as we ply the open, winding road from Gafsa down to Tozeur.   Upon our arrival at Gafsa, we were ushered to another red-striped van which departed in short order.   Other than my lovely traveling companion, it feels strange to be riding with another group of people.

It's been a mercifully quick-passing, sleepy hour or so from Gafsa.  As we reach an intersection I see another of the Squabbits, perched atop a brick column in front of a fountain, making it appear even more giant than is normally the case.  Did I mention that the Squabbit sports a kind of powder blue one-piece suit with an emblem on its chest?  Or that it has a grey purse suspended jauntily from it's right shoulder?  Or that it's otherwise all gold of floppy foot, hands, face and those big, propeller ears?  Well, all are strangely the case. 

Once we're by the Squabbit, we have only a short ride down Avenue Farhat Hached, before we make a right turn, and pull into a dusty lot circumvallated by corruagated metal fence,across from the bus station.  I think we could walk to our hotel in a reasonable time, but once we go back to Farhat Hached and cross the street, we're all too happy to take an eager taxi driver up on his offer to cart us the short distance to our home for the next couple of nights. 

As we go back up the street, we can see the distinctive yellowish brick of Tozeur evident in many of the facades of buildings lining Farhat Hached.  Just before we get back to our old friend, the Squabbit, my eye is caught by a cafe on the opposite side of the street.  A great swell of motorbikes fronts the large cafe whose tables sprawl left and right beyond its doors, most of the men assembled in the shade provided by three very dusty green and white awnings.  The temperature seems the same comfortale 60 or so to which we've happily grown accumstomed, but one does feel a little closer to the desert here.    

And here we are at the Hotel Du Jardin.  Well, the hotel is back there somewhere.   We have to step over a slightly raised threshold to pass through the door in the wooden fence.  Obscuring the hotel is, presumably, all that jardin.  Although it's really like a big, wild yard, distinguished mainly by parallel rows of palm trees extending back to the hotel building.   Even obscured as it is by the palms and other vegetation, the building looks to be quite a mishmash.   A bit of balustrade along the roof line, some lovely, richly-patterned green tile at the upper left, big, arching, darkly-glassed window running along the front of the second floor.  

Once we haul our bags and weary selves up a couple of flights of stairs, we find a reception and lobby area that presents more of a unified, if somewhat antiquated elegance.   Spacious, plenty of dark-toned wood and wrought iron railings at the reception desk and lounge to our right.   The gentleman checking us in looks like something out of an El Greco with his tall, lean figure, the angularity of his faced traced by a thin beard along his jawline. 

We go up another flight of stairs and across roof patio to get to our room.   My guidebook describes the rooms as "plesant and tasteful, with yellow, pink or blue decor."  Of course, one person's plesant and tasteful is another persons pink, floral nightmare.  It seems comfortable enough, really.   The lack of towels and toilet paper is more troubling, but we're assuming that was just a housekeeping oversight. 

Now that we have freshened ourselves up after the trip from Jerba - as is often the case with such long, full days, our departure seems like it happened yesterday - we decide to quit our fabulous room and take advantage of what remains of daylight in Tozeur. 

As we're walking out, I mention to the lanky gentleman at the desk in my feeble French that we lack toilet paper and towels.  I realize this is the same man who took my reservation over the phone from Chicago.  The same, deeply-inflected and brief responses in the affirmative.  The same ability to comprehend my French without difficulty, putting him well ahead of most of his countrymen in that regard.   I like him. 

Both Lee and I are excited to check out the Ouled el Hadef, the fourteenth-century quarter that's supposed to feature a lot of distinctive architecture and brickwork.  Unfortunately, we can't seem to find it.  Using what I thought to be the minaret of the Sidi Abdessalem Mosque for a beacon - of course, in a Muslim city, this is  tantamount to trying to locate yourself by the the position of a particular cloud in the sky - we had wandered in off the main street.   But if this is the much-heralded Ouled el Hadef quarter, I don't believe the hype.  As I consult my map again, it appears as though I mistook the minaret of Sidi Abdessalem for that of the Sidi Abid Lakhdhar Mosque - a classic mistake, really.  

While I can't quite put my finger on it, this particular part of Tozeur feels a bit dicy to me.  When we explore a short cul-de-sac and are admonished by the wagging finger of an older woman in a black robe, we retrace our steps and exit the area in the direction of Avenue Bourguiga.

We quickly dub Borguiba "Arabia Street," as it seems an early-21st version of the bazaar or Arab desert outpost.    The relatively short street is thick with vehicle traffic.  Even early in the evening, the bulging shops are all open.  There's a great prevalence of rug sellers, one tan building has them hanging from all three storeys of it side wall, a couple of rugs even draped over the rooftop railings.  As usual, we disappoint the merchants, avail ourself of one of the hallmarks of the 21st-century bazaar, the ATM machine, and move on.  

It's not a very long walk, essentially south (although I'm having a hard time maintaining my direction in the city that slants along the nearby Chott el Jerid) to Tozeur's vast oasis.  Finally, unceremoniously, we find ourselves in it, or so we think.   There are, apparently, some 200,000 palms in the oasis.   Those we see, but any indication of sights or direction we do not.   For a short time, we walk the sandy paths along irriation ditches, but neither of us is enthused about wandering deeply into the palmerie tired, with night falling.  

We return back out to Avenue Abou el Kacem Chabbi (supposedly Tunisia's greatest poet and a Tozeur native), skirt the alluringly-bizarre-sounding Chak-Wak theme park - another day, hopefully - and find ourselves in the sought after Ouled el Hadef quarter.  As I suspected, there's no mistaking the area once you're in it.   We see the distinctive flat, rectangular, yellow bricks everywhere, always extending out from the line of the recessed mortar.   The setback of brick and mortar is often used to create elaborate patterns on walls which otherwise tell no secrets at all. 

It's mesmerizing, but it's also late.   Lee has started to feel weak by this time, so we leave the quarter in favor of nearby Avenue Borguiba.  Lee bolsters herself with some orange juice and a bit of bread at a busy, modernish (high stainless steel tables with metal stools) cafe and then we set off back to the hotel. 

Somehow, the decor of our room at the Du Jardin seems even more floral, even more pink than I remembered.  But happily, we have been stocked with both toilet paper and towels.  We're laying about for a while before dinner, open bags breathing on the day bed opposite our bed.   I finish The First Year After Beatrice, but am less than satisfied with its conclusion.

Given our level of ambition early this evening, dinner at the hotel's restaurant is really the only option for us.   When we sit in the sizeable restaurant, near the the large window that runs along the garden-facing side of the room, we're the only diners.  

We're surprised to be waited on by an attractive, 30ish Tunisian woman dressed in a very western manner.  She's in jeans and a tight, white Dolce and Gabbana t-shirt.   It's strange to see a Tunisian woman's bare arms.   She politely hands us our menus, but doesn't seem particularly enthused to be here. 

I fare much better with my pasta dish than does Lee.  As I'm eating mine pretty robustly and she's picking at hers - in theory, carbonara, but her poor spagetti is losing a battle against a pool of heavy cream, helped not at all by the somewhat inexplicable inclusion of chopped bits of hard boiled egg - disappointedly, we eavesdrop on a conversation at an adjacent table.  Shortly after we were served, an older American man came in with two Tunisian guys who look to be in their late-20's.  Our countryman mentions more than once a Marie who's not feeling well and won't be joining them for dinner.  It appears that the Tunisian guys are employed as tour guides, whether just with the one couple or with a larger group I can't surmise.   What does seem pretty clear is that the two Tunisians have already grown weary of their American charge. 

The man, fairly pasty and overweight, awash in a light blue (an outfit not terribly unlike the Squabbit, sans shoulder bag; although the Squabbit wears his clothes to better effect), is holding forth on the quality of the meals on the trip. I can see the Tunisian guys struggle to keep their eyes from rolling.   I'm no more fascinated with the gastronomic review than them, but when the subject comes round to Algeria and one of the Tunisians starts to speak, my attention refocuses. 

Contrary to the common wisdom on travel in Algeria - don't do it - the Tunisian says that it can be done with common sense.   As the discussion expands on other noted hot spots through North Africa and the Middle East, I'm impressed by how articulate the man is in English and his wide-ranging knowledge.  He seems neither pedantic nor particularly militant with any of the points he makes, while he lifts his right arm from the table cloth for emphasis. 

When we left the dining room, only the three gentlemen shared the room with us.  But it sounds like a raucous wedding party has taken control of the restaurant.  So it sounds from our pink chamber.   We were very ready for a restful night's sleep, but the room and building about us seems to be positively pulsating.     

At first, we became aware of a procession of some sort (Another holiday?  Or the same holiday which prompted all that car honking in Sfax?  Or is every town just thrilled to have us?!!) on the street beyond the considerable stretch of the hotel's front garden.  But for some time now, what sounds like a happy and well-attended wedding has been raging.  Apparently right below our room.   Or maybe in it.  I'm inclined to say it's just happening in my disbelieving head, but Lee is more than aware of the din as well. 

I actually went outside to the terrace once to try to determine just what is happening, and where.   I couldn't tell.   But the noise is impressive.   It's like some great bash is happening off-site somewhere and the sound is being piped into our very walls and amplified.  It should be an interesting evening. 

Tags: jerba, tozeur

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