Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Now here's the photo that says it all....the camels are still here, but so are the big commercial cruise ships, the modern airport, big city life along side very ancient customs, traditions, buildings, and culture. Tunisia was the most surprising place we visited, and I'm not sure why. I confess that I knew next to nothing about this country, except that it was on the northeastern corner of Africa. I think I had visions of Humphrey Bogart, or Lawrence of Arabia, but what I saw was modernity living inside ancient civiliazation. Tunisia is a republic. Independence from France came in 1956, and in 1957 the Tunisians implemented a constitutional government. Tunis, the capital, was the city we visited. The port is known as La Goulette. The official language is arabic, English is widely spoken, and the weather is hot. Like the US, there is complete separation of church and state, so Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and many others live and work side by side. Women have complete autonomy and equal rights. We got all this from the bus tour guide! Since neither of us had ever been here, we chose to take the all day tour, in spite of the heat. At the height of the day it got to 110F. We began early in the morning, and the tour tried to get us to the outside venues before the temp climbed above 100, so we found ourselves wandering around ancient Carthage when it was only 95! This area of the world has endured wave upon wave of invaders and conquerors, and I'm not doing a history lesson here. The ruins we visited were predominantly Roman, and as is to be expected, there were miles of aquaducts, baths, fora, and colluseums for games and theatre productions. Next we went to a tradtional Souk (market place) where we had time to stroll, bargain (or avoid the hawkers), and wonder whether what we were seeing was authentic, and would survive the trip home. After free time, we filed into a little shop, climbed a mountain of stairs, and were treated to a rug weaving and knotting demonstration. The fact that they offered us goodies, drinks, and had even the foresight to air condition the place, made for much more ready to spend customers. If we hadn't already over the years collected more "oriental" carpets than we have floors to put them on, I'd have been pulling out the plastic. These were gorgeous. Not cheap. But a good buy. And gorgeous. After that, we went off to a Tunisian restaurant for a delicious lunch: lots of wonderful vegetable dishes (the cold minted carrots were particularly refreshing), tumeric chicken in rice, saffron couscous, fried fish, several different potato dishes both hot and cold, icy chunks of ruby red watermelon, and thick, gooey, sweet fig bars that reminded me of baklava--take a fig newton, roll it in honey and crushed sesame seeds and you've got it. Which reminds me: at this point in the cruise, fresh figs started showing up everywhere, and since one of my fondest childhood memories is my Italian nona shoving a freshly picked fig into my mouth and showing me how to catch the juice before it rolled off my chin, I was in heaven. I think the ship food manager was probably wondering why the figs were always disappearing as fast as they went on the buffet line--breakfast, lunch, and supper. Bob and I always took a couple back to our stateroom to put in our fruit bowl. Bananas, apples and oranges are OK, but FIGS............. oh my yes. Anyway....after lunch we then went to the 'typical' ancient village of Sidi Bou Said. Every building is painted white with blue trim, and by this time of the afternoon, the village was shimmering in the heat. You could almost see the heat waves rising in the air. We had to walk about 1/2 mile from where the bus dropped us off, climb up into the village, and negotiate a lot of steps, and a lot more hawkers. I must admit that after 4 trips to Hong Kong, and several other trips to the Philippines, Bangkok, Seoul Korea, Penang, and Singapore, I thought I was immune to the blatant in your face experiences of traders in a market. I was wrong. These guys are intense, unstoppable, and I hate to say it, but they were obnoxious. I wanted to buy a few souvenirs, but felt like what I really wanted to do was deck somebody. When the most arrogant vendor took my shopping basket and dumped it on the floor and stormed away, I said "that's it--I'm outta here", and tried to leave. However, of course, we had to play the game of "please missus....how much you want to pay?" when he came screaming after me. Bob was in another part of the store, and didn't see what was happening at first, so I finally had to enlist the help of the tour guide (who I'm sure was seeing his cut go down the drain) to say "Look --I just want these three items, and this is what I'm willing to pay. I don't want to bargain anymore." We started at the ridiculous price of $1051 US dollars for a basket of 6 items some of which I would swear were made in China, and finally was able to get out of there for $71 US for 4 items. YIKES! I always enjoyed haggling, but this was overwhelming. (Maybe I'm getting old?) Another stop we made was at the Bardo museum (I think this is considered the national museum) where we saw some truly spectacular mosaics. Many of these were discovered in ancient ruins, and moved from the site by sawing off the mosaic from its surface and leaving a thin layer of the stone to which it was attached, wetting them, letting them 'soften', carefully rolling them up, and then transporting them to be remounted at the museum. The small shot here does not do justice, be sure to see them full screen by going to the pictures on Facebook. It was a long, long, hot, hot day, but worth the chance to visit a part of the world we probably will never be able to return to. If you ever get the chance, please go see Tunisia. What we saw was beautiful.