Sunday, December 25, 2005

Perigrinationes Africanae . . .

For years my curmudgeon friend – let’s call him Bob - a retired philosophy professor from a small college in Pennsylvania - let’s call it Juniata - had begged me to go with him to Tunisia. I hadn’t yet seen Carthage, felt I should, so I said Carthago visenda est! We had actually spent a month together in Italy before heading to Tunis, part of it with our wives eating our way through Umbria (see the entry on Umbria), so we flew a short but not cheap Alitalia flight to Tunis from Rome. At the airport we got high-jacked by an older gentleman who offered to take us for a ride as well as give us transport to Tunis, and against my better judgment and wishes, because he promised it would be cheap, Bob insisted (note to reader: Bob is insistent. He also snores.) So once he got the car started (after about twenty minutes) we headed off to Tunis, stopping for gas only once during which the driver filled his car with petrol while it was running, smoking a cigarette with us in a backseat impossible to evacuate because of our bags. Did I mention the cigarette? Once in Tunis we stayed in a pretty decent hotel on the Avenue Bourghibah which Bob had reserved in advance for three nights.

There’s an enormous amount of stuff to see from and in Tunis, but our emphasis throughout the trip was (supposed to be) Roman and Punic archaeology. The Bardo Museum in Tunis is a dream for any fan of Roman mosaics, while you can take a short metro ride from Tunis to visit Carthage as well. The nice thing about Carthage is that it is just a short distance from the lovely city of Sidi Bou Said, in a gorgeous Mediterranean setting overlooking the mountains of Cape Bon, with white washed houses with bright blue trim and marvelous cafes where you can sit all day in the sun, drink coffee and smoke a hookah (don’t ask me what they put in it) – which we did, putting off Carthage to the end of our trip in favor of people watching. From Tunis, for those who can tear themselves away from the hookahs and caffeine, there are a myriad of Roman sites to visit – we chose the two big ones, Bulla Regia and Dougga, and we could have done more, but we wanted to head to points south.

The next day we headed for the louage station and south to El Djem. Louages are fabulous: you go to a station full of cars and vans with guys literally hawking cities. You go to the car or van heading to your destination, then you sit and wait until it’s full: we never waited more than an hour, sometimes less than 15 minutes. Then the drivers head off somewhere between light and warp speed, usually Arab music blaring, windows down, seat belt unfastened (except when they go past police check points), coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, somewhere in the mix is the steering wheel, with about a three ton load, half of it my own body sweat. Did I mention the goat? Now since Bob is older and we only had eight days in Tunisia (we could have used three or four times that), we changed plans once we arrived at El Djem. We decided to spend the day at El Djem and then to head to the Sahara – Bob wanted to see the desert and has over thirty years on me; figuring I’d get back to Tunisia a couple of times still and he wouldn’t, I complied.

First, we found a cheap (and, I suspect, the only) hotel in El Djem, the Hotel Julius Caesar. The city is in the central northern part of the country, and it takes several hours, via louage, to get there from Tunis (even though you’ve gone through hyper-space). The rooms were cheap and nothing to write home about, but there was a lovely cool courtyard full of bougainvillea in full bloom and so we settled down to a nice lunch (the hotel has a great little restaurant, and to my shock a bar, but more on that later) before seeing the sites (all of which you can easily do on foot). For a mere $10 for two we both had enormous and delicious seafood salads – mainly octopus and assorted shellfish drenched in lemon and parsley and a light drizzle of olive oil, followed by an enormous platter of grilled lamb and a couple of beers. All the blood now in my stomach, we then walked zombie-like in our post-prandial haze through the April heat to see the local museum, an excavated Roman villa, and, oh yes a small detail I omitted, probably the most spectacular amphitheater in the Roman world outside of the Colosseum which rises imposingly out of the flat, parched terrain. The little museum is outstanding by any standard, with an extensive collection of Roman mosaics but also frankly some of the most – shall we say, interesting – um, pieces, of ancient erotic art (including a small terra cotta of a woman doing things with a donkey that would make a Paris Hilton video look tame) I’ve ever seen. Please don’t tell my parents. But the highlight of El Djem and what makes it worth the trip is the amphitheater, which we took the better part of the afternoon to wander around and where I practiced my Russell Crowe impression in the arena (note to self: sucking in a beer gut shouting “Are you not entertained?!?!?! Are you not entertained?!?!?!” can cause bladder leakage). Afterwards we sat outside at a concession and smoked hookahs (“You want hubbly-bubbly yes, please!”) and watched – shall we say a culturally unaware (Americans are not the only ones!) group of Swedish women wander about in their bikinis. Note to reader: wandering around the street in an Arab country in a bikini is bad etiquette – Doh! Note to Bob: Don’t ogle Swedish or Arab women – you’re seventy-four for Chrissake!

Now if at the end of a hot day of sight-seeing you want to unwind with a drink, or if you need a six o’clock fix (or five o’clock, or four-thirty fix for that matter) Tunisia may not be the place for you. Having traveled in Turkey and Syria and found that a good glass of wine is easy to find in those countires, I was a bit surprised when we found it difficult to have wine or a beer with dinner. This may not be true if you go to Tunis and stay at large hotels and resorts, but we were going native (including wearing Bin-Laden type turbans, in which I must say I look dashing while Bob looks like, well, the nurse from Romeo and Juliet). It was to my shock, then, that I noticed a hotel bar in El Djem open in the late afternoon with locals (all men) pouring into it for boozing it up. It was a scene: men not just ordering a round of beers, but ordering two, three, four beers each at a time, and pounding them back (I guess that’s how the ship of the desert floats!) I’d never known that belching men had such an impressive range of octave, and was damn glad my wife, or for that the goat (see louage trip above), was not around.

From El Djem we headed down to the desert – which took us the better part of the day, but at last we ended up in Douz. The hotel was nothing to write home about nor were the places and things one could eat – couscous, lamb, and not much else. But at the hotel we booked a two day trek into the desert on camels which, because of our original plan to just stick to Roman ruins (I’m saving Sbeitla and Maktar for another trip), we weren’t very well prepared for, but which was just the right amount of time and which was tremendous. At two in the afternoon we boarded a couple of camels, which are easy enough to ride - you just grab onto the saddle and hang on for dear life. A warning to couples: walk unless you’ve already had your family. I literally found it nearly impossible to sit for two days after spending several hours on the back of these animals. At any rate, after several hours we came to a Bedouin encampment and here my troubles really began. In my household, my wife is the designated bee-killer while I’m the designated arachnicide. What do you do when your enemy leaves signs yet is invisible? Everywhere one looks in the Sahara, despite its being barren, one sees signs of lizards, wild dogs, birds, dung-beetles, of things whose identity you just don’t want to know. For those interested in species diversity I’m sure it’s fascinating, but for those of us set to bed down in the sand that night it leaves us with a slight cork-screw sensation down the spine. Bob said going through the Sahara on camels would give me a new perspective on the Koran and Bible – it did. I now understand the plague of vermin sent to Egypt. If I were to do this again – and I intend to – I’d at the least take an inflatable mattress to stay off the sand, where I barely slept, thinking every rustle was a creature about to clamp the jaws of death around my ankle and inject some deadly substance into whatever blood had not yet frozen from sheer terror and the biting cold of the desert night. I’d also bring a bottle.

For all my complaints, the desert trek was truly a transcendent experience and a highlight of the trip - bathrooms and showers were non-existent, we carried provisions in a pack supplied by the guide. It strips life, if only for about 48 hours, to its barest essentials – no cell phone, no internet (not that you can readily find connections in Tunisia), no trees, nothing, not even the sound of a car or plane. Surrounded by dunes and the sound only of wind and buzzing flies that sounded vaguely like the muezzin, the silence was literally deafening and profound. To see the sun rise and set in the Sahara, to see the blazing ball of red dip at night on the horizon and see the wind turn on like a switch and gently blow the sand over the dunes, then to hear the night wind rage against your tent, is a transformative and humbling experience. It is not nearly as humbling though, as having the local dogs watch you use the outside latrine in the morning and to realize they are watching you to make sure you don’t get lost, because they know more about the place than you do and are wiser here than two dissolute reprobates with Ivy League PhDs masquerading as Lawrence of Arabia.

Our time in Tunisia running out as fast as the sand the winds had blown into every part of my underclothing (another unforgettable experience), we now headed up to Kerouan, the fourth holiest site in Islam set in an ancient walled city with an outstanding souq and known as one of the central places in the country for the manufacture of rugs. We arrived in the city late on Saturday too exhausted to do anything but wander around and find dinner, and had to leave by noon on Sunday to get back to Tunis in time to catch a noon flight Monday back to Rome. But that left us plenty of time to see the mosque and to shop for rugs on Sunday morning, something I had not intended to do since I was not impressed with the quality and style of rugs I had seen in Tunisia. Kerouan changed all that: the next morning as we emerged from the mosque we had just visited we were approached by a salesman who instantly sized up my weakness and accosted me with the query, “Hello sir, how can I help you to part from your money?”. By 11:30 a.m. I had given him a semester’s worth of lessons in just how and was the proud owner of a beautiful rug that ran me half the price of what I had paid for similar ones in Turkey. By the time we arrived in Tunis early that afternoon we still had time to head to Carthage via metro and see the ruins and museum – and that included getting lost in some of the beautiful suburbs around the site.

As one who studies, teaches and publishes in the area of Roman culture and history I certainly intend to go back. I still need to see a good number of Roman and Carthaginian sites still. And joking aside for the moment, the people and culture were both wonderful and we felt very welcome; when lost (as we were on a number of occasions), people were more than willing to help out, all of us using pigeon French to communicate. Next time I go however, I’ll allow more time and bring some extra accoutrements for the desert (namely a gun, toilet paper and a flask) to make life in the Sahara more amenable. Final words of advice: Learn French, don’t pay over $250 for a decent rug, and leave your goat outside the bar at El Djem.



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