The sea is flat, flat, flat. It’s a mirror and a window to another world. Gaze upon the placid distant shimmers and wonder where the sea ends and the sky begins. Closer to the beach the sun-soaked whites and blues merge into that tropical teal non-islanders have come to know best from Caribbean pirate films, a fantastical color that masks the true depth of the water. Is it a half meter? Two meters? Ten or fifteen? Difficult to tell without diving in…
Manny and I have spent nearly two weeks on our small, quasi-isolated island in West Papua, Indonesia. What is the name of our island? We don’t know, and our internet has worked only a handful of times so we probably won’t find out for a while. Thanks to our lack of internet, our ability to look up puppy videos on Instagram (Manny) and news from BBC (me) has dramatically diminished. Mercifully removed from much of the modern world, our lazy days float by in a blend of snorkeling the stunning mazes of coral, three meals per day and about four or five tea breaks, techno music from our portable speaker, long walks upon the beach and into the dense jungles, morning exercise routines, reading (S.O.S. – send more books!), studying Chinese, and whatever else we can do to pass the daylight hours. (Our island schedule is now firmly in the ~6am to ~9pm range!)
Two weeks on the island and the only outside news to penetrate our tropical paradise cocoon is of the (of course) morbid sort: ~180 dead from the Boeing aircraft crash, ~50 dead from the mosque shootings in New Zealand. Grim (but not, unfortunately, terrifically unique) tidings for any international news headline, but totally incongruous to our mellow surroundings here. Such hate in the world of man, such fear of The Other continues to breed in country after country after country. Under the water’s surface lies a dreamworld of color, of variety, of differences large and small. What lessons we could learn from this world! (Though, perhaps it is too fantastical to imagine humans could take to heart lessons learnt today that have been available for much of our documented existence.)
In any case, life moves on. Our own ability to affect the world starts with those within sight, sound, and touch (and email). And no matter how many grim tales of murder and hate make it to our ears, the number of friends we make in strange places and at odd times and without even a common language, only further cements our unshakable belief in the inherent goodness of the vast, vast, vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants (human and animal alike).
When we last spoke, we had only just begun to discuss the details of our trip to Tunisia – one of our FAVORITE countries we have visited and SO deserving of many, many beautiful blog posts that we are unfortunately not going to write! Yes, we are horribly late with our blogging and now are multiple countries past our due date, so we are going to condense the rest of our Tunisia details into these short(er) posts. SORRY!
After leaving Tunis, we headed south-east to the beach town of Hammamet, where we found the same story as all over Tunisia – empty hotels, a lack of tourists, and huge amounts of excellent food for much too cheap of prices. Here, we also began our series of visits to Tunisian video game cafes – cheap, generally smokey places where mostly teenagers and youngish adults (always male) play FIFA for entire afternoons and evenings. Not being much soccer fans, we instead usually opted for Grand Theft Auto: V so we could drive indiscriminately over sidewalks and smash through other cars and people – our in-game behavior being of much interest to gamers who had taken a brief break from their own soccer matches!
A couple quiet days later, we headed further south along the coast to another famous beach resort city – Sousse. (Also infamous as the location of the 2015 beach resort terrorist attack that killed ~50 people). On our first of two nights in the city center (great food, beautiful old buildings, friendly people), we walked for nearly an hour to go to what was marked as a sushi restaurant online. Finding nothing but a series of empty/closed/dark hotels, we began heading back in the direction of our hotel when we stumbled past a bar I had noted earlier as having a party that evening. What luck! Entering around 6 or 7pm, we spent at least 4 or 5 hours eating some mediocre bar food and drinking (Thank god for cold beer!!) until the DJ showed up and began playing. Music was nice, beer was not terrible, and we were snug inside while a terrific rainstorm exploded outside – what else do you need?
Never is the divide between the haves and the have-nots more apparent than in the upscale restaurants and clubs in countries like Tunisia, India, Cambodia, etc. As the rain crashed down and club-goers continued to enter (and bring with them fresh streams of water) the front entrance began to resemble more a shallow lakebed than a club gateway. From a backdoor, a middle-aged woman dressed to clean emerged amidst the dancers and made her way to the front entrance. Squeezing through the revelry, she stooped over and began the arduous task of mopping up the growing pond. Using a much-too-small towel, squeezing into a much-too-small bucket, slowly and steadily the bucket filled with muddy rain water. She then hauled its weight carefully into the lurching crowd, disappearing back amidst the dancers and reappearing with the bucket empty a few minutes later. The swampland floor before her lay soaked and nearly unchanged, her Sisyphean task keeping her busy until the rain finally began to abate. We watched the young, affluent masses arrive and pass around her without a second thought. Or if they had a thought, it was one of disturbance. The motherly woman represented perhaps a future they feared, where they too would be forced to stoop in a dark, wet, thunderously boisterous club and wring water from a too-small rag into a too-small bucket. Or maybe it was a heavy look back at a past they wished they could forget. Either way, it was a break from the glitz and the glamour, the heels and short skirts and make-up (not found much on typical Tunisian streets), the thumping bass and the beers. It was an uninvited dose of reality, a punch of the outside world infringing on Friday night in the dream-like club world.
After the nights in the center of Sousse, we grabbed a taxi for a short 25 or 30 minute drive north along the coast to our next stop, an absolutely stunning third floor duplex AirBnB in the nearby beachside suburbs. With two huge private terraces, massive amounts of brilliant Tunisian sunlight throughout the day, views of the crisp blue sea water, and a hammock, the impeccably designed, upmarket vintage-chic furnished Tunisian home easily landed as one of the best places we have ever stayed! Chilling with the apartment’s traditional Shisha pipe (after a few YouTube tutorials I figured out the set-up!) and numerous bottles of wine (two trips to the closest supermarket that stocked alcohol [not a common thing in Tunisia] were necessary during our four nights!) on our upper terrace as we gazed at the stars, a cool wind blowing from the sea, was the proverbial “icing on the cake” during our stay.
Happy as we were at our temporary home outside Sousse, after a few days it was time to go. Back to the Sousse citycenter via one of the many “louage” passenger van taxis that sped up and down the main road, we boarded our train ~11am or so for our seven hour ride to Tozeur – Gateway to the Desert! Off the beach and into the dry, desolate abyss! In Tunisia, as in Sri Lanka, the train doors are left open during the ride, so you can sit (or even climb outside if you are so inclined) and watch the scenery speed by with an unimpeded view. From Sousse to the desert, we watched as the beach’s bright green shrubbery sputtered and shrank away in the face of the growing grey rock, red stone, and yellow sands. Mountains rose and fell before our eyes, the sun zoomed to its zenith and dropped, dropped, dropped as passengers alighted, alighted, alighted until we were the only ones left in our entire train car! Still onward, now in the growing darkness (only a faint red glow still present beyond the mountains) with the desert now consuming the land in every direction. Up and down we walked the train, only finding one other passenger still on board. By the time we arrived in the desert town of Tozeur, the last stop, the three of us got off together – and we realized he actually worked for the train company anyway!
Manny and I met in Morocco, on separate trips through the country and our each first visits to the Sahara Desert. She took a 14 person two night tour that was mediocre in many ways – but did succeed in bringing all of those tourists to some HUGE dunes in the middle of nowhere. My own desert experience in Morocco lasted much longer, without a tour guide, and unfortunately included none of the region’s famous massive dunes (I found out later I walked the wrong way!! Arggg!), so we were both eager to get back into the desert to experience some of the Sahara that seemed to only exist in our dreams. Our first of three (all, thankfully, quite different) desert tours set off from Tozeur the day after we arrived. We hired a driver with a 4×4 who took us on a 1/2 day expedition of nearby sites: camel crossings, a tourist trap oasis + abandoned town (not very interesting, and worse with the touts that aren’t present in much of the rest of Tunisia), across the dry salt flats, and through some small sand dunes to the (still set-up) Star Wars movie site of Mos Espa. All in all, a nice variety of things, and only some minor annoyances due to a failure to actually visit some of the places we expected to see. (At one point, the driver points to a distant area as a waterfall/oasis. Later, I ask when we are visiting the waterfall and he says we already have! To him, the visit was simply looking from far away while on the road heading to the next destination!)
More desert fun on the way! Posting Part 2 tomorrow (probably!)