Anil pointed out to me, over the course of our month in Tunisia, that there is something very unusual about this moderate Islamic country on the coast of North Africa. We are coming to the end of four years of almost continuous travel and this is the first country we have visited that does not have the blaring presence of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Aside from not being brought face-to-face with these large international brands, we noticed that there seems to be little of what we call ‘sign pollution’ here. There are a couple of French supermarket chain stores in the larger centers, Carrefour and Monoprix, but their signs are informative and do not dominate the streetscape.
These are some of the things you notice almost immediately, but it takes a little more time for it to sink in, what a friendly, relatively gentle culture thrives here. The population is now 60% urban, with many people flocking to the cities for their education and employment. The government provides free education up to the university level, free health care, as well as old age and disability pensions. It did come to my attention that the few disabled people that I saw, all seemed to have good quality wheelchairs and modern crutches. This is rather surprising in a country that is seen by most to be a developing nation.
Though 98% of Tunisians are Sunni Muslims, there are small groups of Jews, Christians, and Shiite Muslims living peacefully together. As one might expect, there is a lot more modern dress in the larger cities than in the villages and the country- side. Women here do not veil their faces completely, although there are many women and girls who wear the hijab. Anil estimates that less than 20% of the women dress in a very conservative fashion; it’s not unusual to see young women wearing the same fashions you might see at a high school or university in the West, but with a co-coordinated headscarf for modesty or as a symbol of her faith.
It is striking when you see a Berber woman wearing a white shawl and held together tightly under the chin, with the shawl enveloping the body in cloth, but the face is still visible. It seems that nowadays only the oldest men wear the traditional red Tunisian felted wool hat. I can only guess that when these men die, tourists will unlikely see anyone wearing these icons on the street any longer.
Traffic is heavy in Tunis and Sfax, but for the most part, it is relatively light everywhere else and it is very easy to drive in Tunisia. The rules of the road are very different, but easily understandable and there seems to be little speeding and almost no road rage. Drivers honk their horn as a warning to others to beware, not as an aggressive insult. The road signs are fairly easy to follow; most important road signs are in Arabic and French. It is not too difficult for English-speaking people, with a little knowledge of French, as traffic signs are in both Arabic and Latin scripts.
During our month in Tunisia, we experienced almost no hassles as all. I don’t know if this was partly due to the fact that people thought Anil was Tunisian, but I don’t think it’s just that. Of course, the taxis to and from the airport are a bit of a rip-off, as they are in most cities in the world. No one tried to short change us, or gave us wrong directions when our guidebook wasn’t clear, but two youths, working in tandem did try to pick Anil’s pocket when we boarded the train at Carthage. We were on to them almost immediately because their behavior was unlike most Tunisians from the minute they pushed past us while boarding.
We sometimes had difficulties find food that we enjoyed. Most hotels include breakfast with the room charges, and the basic breakfast consists of breads, pastries, cheese, yogurt, boiled eggs, salad with tuna on top (ugg!), olives, orange juice, tea and coffee. We made a point to fill up for breakfast and often had an early dinner so we only had two meals a day. Tunisians love their eggs and tuna, and we kept forgetting to tell them not to serve tuna with our meals. They would usually remove the offending plate, but it would be returned with the polluting tuna removed, but with the taste of fish lingering.
Tunisians don’t seem to have a culture of eating out in restaurants. The women are certainly not confined to their homes, there are plenty of women on the streets of the cities and working in the fields in the rural areas, but with the focus on families as part of their culture, it seems their evening meals are most often eaten at home. The bulk of the eateries on the streets seem to serve fast foods like shwarma, pizzas, and sandwiches made of French bread stuffed with vegetables, hard boiled eggs, and tuna. When we ate out in Tunisia, we usually opted for kebabs as the meat is very good here and fortunately, tuna doesn’t lend itself well to being cooked on a skewer.
I was surprised to find that Tunisian food is usually very bland, in fact, we often had to add salt to our food, and I usually find commercial foods too salty. The condiments that we use in the West are hardly in evidence; they have a fiery hot sauce called harissa which is everywhere, and unfortunately, something in it gave me migraine headaches, so I wasn’t able to spice things up and had to avoid some dishes altogether. I had more migraines than I care to mention here, and no, it wasn’t the Tunisian red wine. When I finally figured out it was the harissa that was bothering me, I made sure to eliminate it, but not the red wine, and I was headache free.
However, what the health they gain by limiting their salt, they lose by eating sugar. I don’t think I ever saw a Tunisian put less than three packets of sugar in their espresso, and many added four. As you can imagine, obesity is making inroads with the urban people. We didn’t care for Tunisian sweets, but I swear, there are sweet shops wherever you look, and even more where you’re not looking. One of the most popular is made from grain that looks like couscous and is filled with dates. We both prefer the dates solo, and ate our fair share.
Well, that about sums it up. We came for a couple of weeks, but stayed for a month. This was in part due to our delight with Djerba and in part because of my broken molar. I was lucky enough to get a great referral to a young dentist in Tunis, and after he did a root canal without me even realizing it, I signed on to have the few remaining teeth in my mouth that were filled with dark amalgam, replaced with crowns as well. Dr. Wassam Derbel has a very modern practice and a gentle, steady hand.
Our last day in Tunisia was spent at the Bardo Museum where we went to see all the treasures that had been taken from the historical sites around the country. It was a great way to wrap up our visit, but unfortunately, the museum is undergoing a major expansion and upgrade, and many of the rooms in the former palace are closed for the time being. We enjoyed our visit but were disappointed not to see some of the best mosaics on display. The Bardo is reputed to have the best Roman mosaics in the world, and we wanted to see them all.
Fortunately, a friendly guard allowed us into the rooms undergoing plastering and painting and we were able to see some of the most famous pieces when the tour groups weren’t around. The guard expected a tip of course, but it was well worth the few extra dinars to see the Cyclops mosaic from the baths at Dougga as well as the one of Diana The Hunter. The Cyclops was draped in plastic sheeting but an equally friendly breeze blew in the open window and lifted the plastic just long enough for me to snap a few photos. No need to tip the wind.
The extra time spend in Tunisia cut into our time in Morocco, but we were feeling a little wary of Moroccans anyway. After spending so much time with the gentle, hassle free people of Tunisia, we were decidedly anxious when we kept being warned of the intense pressure we would face in the major cities in Morocco. Our Lonely Planet Morocco book tries its best to warn visitors of the relentless behaviour they will face, almost from the minute they step off the plane or ferry. This is something I remember from my six weeks in Morocco in the early 1970s and it has been reinforced by the experiences my brother David and his wife Jeong Ae related to us when they toured the country.
For that reason, we decided to forego Marrakesh for now and focus on the northern part of the country. I have always wanted to see Fez again, it is an enchanting place, but we read that nearby Meknès is a more laid back imperial city, so we are going to base ourselves there. Fez is only an hour away and it will be easy to move back and forth. The train to Tangier leaves from Meknès, so we will be in a good position to travel by train on our way to Gibraltar and Spain.
I guess it’s time to wind this entry up. I have called it ‘Reflections On Tunisia’ but I find myself mentally moving on to Morocco already, leaving Tunis behind before I even board the plane. We left our flight booking till the last minute because I wanted to make sure my dental work was completed to my satisfaction. When we went to the travel agency, we found that the economy seats on Tunisair were completely booked for Easter Sunday, but that the airline was running a special promotion. We were able to purchase business class tickets for less than we would have paid on Air Maroc for economy.
It’s not chocolate, but it sure feels like an Easter present. Thank you Tunisia, for a great visit, and thank you Tunisair for a great flight. While we were packing to leave, Anil, always a quick one with the numbers and the dates, pointed out that we left Canada on 09/09, Lebanon on 03/03 and now Tunisia on 04/04. We have exactly one month to go before we fly back to Canada. It’s too bad that the maximum number of days we could book our flight home was limited to 333 days from the date of booking, or we would be returning on 05/05. If that’s our biggest disappointment during this, our fourth year of retirement travels, I would have to say we’re not doing too badly at all.