Our final hours in Tunisia and our first country post. While Manny chops veggies and prepares some steaks for lunch in the kitchen, I annoy our neighbors by blaring some of the most intense Berlin techno I can find. (Therapeutic writing music as we sum up our days here.)
Once upon a time, only about eight or so years ago, Tunisia was one of the most popular Mediterranean destinations for European tourists. Then, of course, the 2010 Arab Spring revolution exploded throughout the country (and the rest of the Maghreb), and the deluge of tourists slowed to a stream, then to a trickle. Just when things started to settle down, a couple very prominent terrorist attacks in 2015 (Thirty-eight, including thirty vacationing British, died in an assault rifle attack on a beach resort in popular Sousse. Twenty-two died in an attack on the famous Bardo National Museum in Tunis, just three months earlier.) took that trickle of tourists down to a few drips, and then to something akin to moisture found in the desert that covers much of the country.
Traveling around Tunisia is odd because there is a large tourist framework that is in place – there just aren’t any tourists. The country is very safe now (apart from the suicide bombing on the day we arrived, but we’ll get back to that!), but it stills holds a perception of instability/danger and the tourists have not returned. In hotel after hotel, we found ourselves without any fellow travelers. Sometimes another room would be occupied by local Tunisians traveling for work, but that was pretty much it. And these weren’t small B&B’s either. The tourism industry used to be humming along at such a level that it could support the medium to large hotels that now lay mostly vacant. These places we visited generally had around 15-25 rooms as well as atriums, dining areas, lounges, and more. And all were almost entirely devoid of tourists.
The hotels we patronized were the lucky ones that managed to stay in business these long years. We went past plenty of massive hotels that had shut down; there just weren’t any visitors coming. It gets even more depressing when we speak to the owners and staff of these places when they tell us that it has gotten better in these last years. You can only stand and nod and try to smile when the owner of the ~25 room hotel you are staying in (we often felt like we had entire wings/floors of the hotels to ourselves) is telling you that having a single room occupied in these days is doing better.
Tunisia needs tourists. It is not a wealthy country, and jobs weren’t exactly abundant ten years ago when the tourism industry was flowing well. But locals aren’t as desperate as I would have imagined them to be. (Perhaps they were in the past, but the situation has gone on so long they have lost that emotion.) Instead, those working in the tourist industry seem to be more weary, more exhausted. Working longer for less tourists, for less money. Most of the locals we met have been forced to branch out into other jobs to survive. Opening various kinds of shops. Growing palm date trees. Doing whatever they can do to grab a few dinars needed for dinner.
The lack of tourists is truly a shame because Tunisia is one of the loveliest countries we have ever visited. The people? Unbelievably nice and generous. The food? SO FREAKIN’ GOOD. Unlike in the States, if you sit down at a restaurant in Tunisia you won’t be simply eating the entrée you ordered. Different kinds of salads, bread, spicy Harissa with olive oil, olives, soup, and other minor options fill the table before you ever get your main course. The portions are huge, the food is overwhelmingly excellent and with lots of variety (sooooo much better than Morocco, sorry!), and it is CHEAP. Most huge meals for two, with a soda (not many places serve beer), will be around $3-4 USD. That’s around $1.5-$2 per person for a half roast chicken or entire fish, soup, various salads, and whatever else they have. THIS IS AWESOME!
Tunisia is best traveled if you speak Arabic or French, but it’s not necessary. There are plenty of Tunisians who speak English very well, as well as plenty of people who will speak to you in Arabic/French and don’t mind you can’t understand! It always blows my mind to travel in these countries, talk to the locals, and find out that many of them can speak four or more languages. (As a baseline, it seems nearly everyone speaks at least Derja [the Tunisian dialect of Arabic], standard Arabic [standard Arabic and Tunisian dialect are generally not mutually intelligible], and French. Many taxi drivers in tourist areas and others in the tourist industries speak English well. And those who were in [formerly] VERY touristy areas would often rattle through German and Italian as they looked for a response from us. Impressive!)
Another interesting thing about Tunisia is the lack of pushiness from touts. Unlike India, Morocco, Cambodia, or most countries we have visited, Tunisian salesmen do not push you very hard to get you to come into their shop or buy their products. Compared to the aforementioned countries, we found Tunisia to be very relaxing since you weren’t constantly saying “No” to everyone you saw. And if you do enter a shop and make it known you won’t buy anything, they will instantly show you to the door. There won’t be a long chat where the salesman tries to pique your interest with a different product. He just stands up, opens the door, and you know it’s time to get out – even if you would have liked to look peruse the store a bit longer!
Even more relaxing about Tunisia – almost nobody is trying to rip you off. As fellow travelers know, haggling with salesmen, taxi drivers, hotel receptionists, is par for the course for backpacking in many places… but not here! Taxis are super cheap, and EVERY single driver used the meter. Prices for hotels are printed and left at the front desk so you can clearly see what you need to pay – no haggling required. (I tried, of course. The receptionists would just kind of blink at me… “No.”) Shared taxi vans either have the charge clearly printed on the tickets, or you pay the driver by passing money up to the front of the van via other passengers. Either way, no one overcharged.
Of course, if you want to buy something from a market, you should be prepared to haggle, but even here was easier than expected. Prices started lower than “normal” and dropped precipitously in ways we hadn’t before seen. Some of the salesmen were literally begging us to make a sale. Sure, it could be partly a sales technique, but it feels less like a calculated scheme to make money off a tourist when the streets are empty of tourists.
Alrighty, so brief overview of Tunisia complete, let’s take it back to the *explosive* start to our trip. (Pun, unfortunately, intended!) After a short flight from Marseille, we landed at Tunis-Carthage International and immediately had two strokes of extremely good luck. The first: right after going through immigration, Manchit decided to rearrange her baggage a bit. In doing so, she realized she had lost her passport. Convinced it must have fallen out of her bag on the conveyor belt at immigration, we retraced our steps, talked to security, and they handed over her passport instantly! How fortunate to have realized it was missing before walking out of the airport!
The second stroke of luck may have been even better. Due to thriftiness (and not knowing how cheap Tunisian taxis are), we waited ~30 minutes for a bus to arrive at the airport to take us to the city. No bus in sight, we took a taxi and zoomed right into the center of Tunis in about ten minutes. Unfortunately, once we reached the city’s main thoroughfare, Ave Habib Bourguiba (named for the independence leader who was president for 30 years), we were forced to disembark from the taxi. Police had barricaded the street and were not allowing cars forward. Thousands of curious bystanders stood in the crowded streets chatting in nervous excitement, pushing back and forth like waves on the beach.
At first we thought it was some kind of public concert or a holiday celebration. We took our bags and joined the rest of the masses moving down the avenue. As we drew closer to the center of the city – where our AirBnB awaited us – the crowd grew thicker and more frantic in their pursuit to either go forward or back. As much of the crowd that was flowing forward, an equal amount was pushing backward in the direction we came.
We plunged further onward and came within a block of our AirBnB when the police begun shoving their barricades quickly in our direction. Thousands of people first pushing in one direction, then being propelled back fast by the police. Now it didn’t feel as much fun, nor did I want to hang around to find out what was happening.
I kept Manchit’s hand gripped close and we forced our way to a side street, on which we kept moving until the crowds thinned enough where we could take a moment to regroup. After checking the news on my phone (Thanks T-Mobile for free data in 200+ countries!), we found out a woman had blown herself up (and injured a further 8 or so policemen) in front of a government building on Habib Bourguiba, which happened to be right next to our AirBnB. The stroke of luck for us? The bombing occurred only ~30 minutes before we arrived. If I hadn’t been so cheap and had simply taken the first taxi I had seen, we would have been walking right down the street when the bomb went off!
Bombing aside, the country is very safe. The woman blew herself up as a protest against lack of jobs/the government. No terrorist organization is believed to be involved, and no civilians were injured. After the bombing, there were police stationed on street corners throughout the city, and no one seemed particularly worried. (No one seemed particularly worried when the bomb went off either, though. As our AirBnB host joked, “Only in Tunisia will a bomb go off and everyone runs to get closer!”)
After exploring the medina and some of central Tunis on our first day, we spent the second day looking around the nearby ancient Carthage sites. Carthage has been built, destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again numerous times, but there are still plenty of ~2,000 year old buildings, walls, and pathways to wander around and explore. It certainly is a bizarre feeling to run your hand over the sculpted rock of something so old or to think about the lives of those who lived twenty generations ago. How were their lives different than ours? How were they the same?
Our thirst for ancient, crumbling walls complete, we made our last stop of the day in nearby Sidi Bou Said, an absolutely stunning, upscale little town perched above the Mediterranean. Painted in only blues and whites, the suburb of Tunis offers some of the most picturesque scenes of the country: cute homes with white domes reflecting the hot sun, intricately designed blue doors that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hollywood version of A Thousand and One Nights, and a collection of small, winding alleyways leading down to a small port. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s easy to see why it is both a favorite tourist destination for Tunisians themselves, and a place where the local elite can live in a different world, far away from the hustle of central Tunis.
Back to New York City tomorrow. Back to Guangzhou tomorrow. See you all soon and thanks for reading this edition of SUPER GRILLED TRAVELS. We’ll have another post about Tunisia coming soon (Hint: DESERT!), but this will be the final piece while we are abroad.
Sending love from one end of the globe to the other. From yours to ours to theirs to whomever needs it.
Talk to you soon.
D + M