Having accepted that I could not continue my journey without a flight, I flew to Tunisia on the 2nd of May and spent the subsequent seven days making my way from there, through France and back home to Cheltenham. I had a peculiar mix of feelings on this last leg; although I felt satisfied that I had made my way to Cairo the way I had, I still felt the frustration of, firstly, being unable to continue from there flightlessly, and secondly, spending much more time there than I had really wanted to pointlessly waiting for a visa. Consequently I was hurrying back to England under a time pressure which I wouldn't have had imposed on me were it not for the Libyan authorities. This residual annoyance in my mind subtly tainted the remainder of my journey.
Days 97-104 (Wed 2nd - Wed 9th May)
Late in the evening on Tuesday 2nd of May I stepped off my 'plane to Tunis and, finding no buses to the city in the darkness outside, I took a taxi which cost the equivalent, after
haggling, of 10 english pounds; an amount which would hire a taxi for a whole day in Egypt. The driver also tried to dupe me into paying a western price for a hotel by insisting that the price I had told him I intended to pay was impossible to find in Tunis. Nevertheless I insisted on finding one, and after rejecting the first one he took me to, which cost substantially more, he took me to one that was in the price range I'd requested. While this appeared to vindicate me, the driver used the fact to try to persuade me that he'd saved me money and I should pay him extra for the service. Straightaway it seemed that Tunisians were just as cunning in business as Egyptians.
On the Thursday morning I set out into the streets of Tunis and as I saw it for the first time in daylight I immediately began to register the differences between Tunisia and Egypt. Tunis is quite obviously more successfully and more completely westernised, and this was apparent to me in my observations of simple everyday things such as the notable absence of litter on the streets (which were generally clean and tidy), the lack of people loitering around, pleasant open spaces such as a wide boulevard with a pedestrian central walkway and public flower beds and small parks, and no smog. Also, with french being widely spoken, the abundance of french cars, and the climate being noticeably cooler, it felt more like France than North Africa.
Having found an agency for cross-Mediterranean ferries and bought a ticket to Marseille, I set about exploring Tunis's most well-known attraction; The Medina (old city). Among many things in this sprawling network of ancient shops, houses and municipal buildings I saw Tunis's oldest monument, called Zaytuna. Zaytuna is a 1300 year-old mosque and university with a square central courtyard, and at which studied the revered islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the 14th Century.
Whilst immersed in the bustling chaos of the Medina's labyrinthine alleys, I came to meet a local lad named Omar having asked him and a friend for directions to an historic building. Omar, who was in his twenties, offered to show me the sights as only a local could, all the while insisting that he didn't want payment for the service. Suppressing my suspicion I submitted to his enthusiastically presented personal tour. He showed me various buildings, beginning with the one I'd asked for directions to, all of which had some historical significance. For example, he explained to me that the iconic double front doors of Tunis always had two ornately cast knockers which were mounted at different heights, the lower one being for women to use.
As dusk fell, it felt as though the guided exploration of the ancient city must be coming to an end, and yet Omar had brought me to the large front doors of a small museum which had obviously closed for the evening. Omar insisted he could gain access to this place and, despite my expression that it wasn't necessary, began calling the owners name and throwing stones at a shuttered upstairs window. It was yet another situation in which local people go to extraordinary lengths to entertain Western tourists. When a man eventually appeared in the doorway, I was able to enter the building and absorb the knowledge Omar then imparted to me about the artifacts in the two or three small rooms inside, most of which were mannequins clothed in traditional national dress including that worn at a wedding ceremony.
Having given the museum owner, or curator, a little money, which was doubtlessly, though not unreasonably, the point of the exercise, I decided to head back towards the hotel and find some food somewhere when Omar suggested going to a bar for a beer. While I still had a trace of the suspicion which Westerners come to develop when engaged with street-people in economically poorer countries, I nevertheless agreed to the idea as I saw it as a chance to see Tunis-by-night as a local knew it, and Omar came across as generally likable and interesting.
We made our way to a bar which Omar knew and which he said did not charge tourist prices. It was a narrow room with a series of tables positioned at intervals along one wall, allowing a corridor along the opposite wall in which people continually struggled to get past one another. We sat down and a waiter came and took our order, which naturally was a bottle of beer each. We had interesting conversation which was essentially founded on Omar's theory on life, which I came to realise was central to his involvement with me. He had begun by drawing on a paper place-mat a diagrammatic illustration of the earth, and on it a man. His core idea was that the earth provides what men need, and men take it. From this premise Omar held that no man had the right to withhold what the earth gives from another man; every man has equal rights to everything the earth gives. The obvious real-world application of this was that people should not be rich and poor, but share the earth's fruits evenly. I understood and partly shared his essentially socialist view, but pointed out the contrary view that resources were distributed according to how effectively humans strived for them; that humans were engaged in a game of 'survival of the fittest' and that inevitably resources are spread unevenly. Unsurprisingly he disagreed with this outlook, (and I myself am loitering between the two camps) and I was reminded that political views tend to stem from personal circumstances rather than overall understanding of how societies function.
Day 99 (Fri 4th May)
With only two days remaining to experience Tunis, I had bought in The Medina a guide book in order to make an informed choice on how best to spend them. The first such choice was a visit to a nearby seaside town called Sidi Bou Said which is highly regarded for it's 'prettiness'. The TGM slow train took me the 20km out of Tunis to the centre of the modern part of Sidi Bou Said which lies at the foot of the elevated older and pretty part. A few minutes of walking brought me face to face with the startling white houses and their boldly-painted blue doors and window frames for which the place is admired and visited. The position of the houses was spectacular as its geographical height gave it the advantage of a comprehensive view of the sea and a good part of Tunisia's coastline.
The one significant place I visited there was the Dar Al Annabi mansion with a beautifully flower-filled, colourfully tiled courtyard, and similarly beautiful and colourful traditional small rooms. The building also had a very pleasant sun-bleached, multi-level tiled rooftop terrace where one could easily imagine wealthy occupants relaxing on sunbathers in past decades and centuries.
Back out in the few main streets tourists were swarming between gift shops, but yet it was easy to find within only a few yards small side streets which were almost deserted.
On my way back to the capital I also saw nearby Carthage, an ancient Punic city which largely developed later in its history under Roman rule. I saw its well preserved Roman theatre and its ancient but featureless Punic Ports.
Day 100 (Sat 5 May)
I took a bus inland to Dougga, the site of an ancient roman town built in the 4th Century B.C. It is about 100km west of Tunis, and the scenery was beautifully green all the way; lush grassy fields scattered with poppies and yellow flowers and backed by gentle green mountains. The ruins covered a large enough area of a hillside to absorb a couple of hours exploration, and the layout of alleyways between houses and other buildings, including several temples, was so well preserved and maintained that it was easy to imagine it as a functioning Roman town over two millennia ago.
In the evening I was back in Tunis and by arrangement I met Omar again to have a couple of beers, which again I paid for as he said he had no money. Later when I tried to depart he began repeating his view on supporting the poor and pressurised me to give him money, even though I had already been generous with drinks and food during the time I'd spent time with him. He explained in some detail how hard his life was and how his poverty was not due to his lack of trying to earn money, but lack of opportunity. I sympathised to some degree, but explained that it was up to each individual to find a way to earn their living, however hard that might be, rather than the welfare of the poor being the responsibility of the better-off. I gave an example of a young man I had met in The Medina who had set up his own business repairing mobile phones in a small street kiosk. This, I said, was proof that it was possible to create a successful enterprise with determination, smartness and with minimal financial outlay. I knew this because I had had a conversation about it with the said stallholder.
My attempt to encourage Omar to continue being enterprising to support himself did not reduce his insistence that I donate money to him. When I explained that I couldn't give any more than I already had because I had only just enough money in the bank to get home, this seemed like a ruse to Omar, and his doubt was difficult to quash. He insisted that I should give freely what I didn't really need (financially) because he was in greater need than me and, as he had explained two days before, he believed it was absolutely right that wealth should be shared out equally among the world's population. His thoughtfully presented and earnestly made plea for money inclined me to give him the most I could without getting myself stranded between there and Cheltenham, but of course his insistent pleading continued and eventually I had to walk away feeling a mixture of helplessness, shame and annoyance.
Days 101- 102 (Sun 6th May - Mon 7th May)
Having wandered around Tunis's streets some more on the Sunday morning I took the Marseille-bound ferry in the early afternoon. I had been looking forward to the sight and feeling of seeing the edge of Europe loom into view on the sea's horizon, but I already knew that crossing the Sea from Tunisia would make the contrast between the two continents disappointingly untypical because the North Tunisian landscape was so green and European looking. Thus as Marseille came within sight at lunchtime the next day I was pleased, but not overwhelmed.
Having found a small hotel near the port (E20) I spent the afternoon exploring the busy harbour-city, most notably the decorative Notre-Dame de la Garde which stands on a hilltop above the city with a one-ton gold statue of The Virgin Mary and Child on top of its tower.
Day 103 (Tue 8th May)
I took a train to Avignon (E17), which I was far more interested in seeing than Marseille. It is the oldest town in France having been occupied since the 4th Century BC, and it's streets and yellowed stone buildings seemed to ooze history. Its famous centre-piece, which I visited, is the Palais de Papes which was built in 14th Century for, as the name indicates, the Pope. I learned that at that time the centre of the Catholic church was moved from Rome to Avignon where it stayed for nearly a hundred years.
I had booked into a hostel near the river and in the sunny evening sat on the riverbank with roommate Raphael from Spain, and ate cheese and drank wine. He had to go to bed early, but I made my way into the town to enjoy my last night of the trip. I visited a couple of bars and exercised my french with the friendly local people, and was invited back to somebody's apartment for after-bar beers!
Day 104 (Wed 9th May)
I had most of the day to roam Avignon's historic streets and alleys, which I eagerly did. One very pretty out-of-the-way street I found myself in had a small canal running alongside it interrupted by several historic wooden waterwheels. There were enchanting features everywhere.
I sensed that the town was fairly wealthy as all the buildings were in perfect condition and everywhere was very clean. The popularity of the place with tourists looked like the most likely factor in this.
I finally had to board my bus home at 5.30 pm, but the overwhelmingly sunny weather and the attractiveness of the place made me wish I didn't have to. Once on the bus and moving northward, I became fully aware that my adventure was finishing and I began to reflect. The sunshine and landscape put me into an inspired mood and I felt enlightened and poetic about life. I mused on the lush gentle landscape our bus was drifting through with its irresistible mixture of vineyards and tall dark-green fir-trees pointing at the sky; all contentedly resting beneath seemingly endless sunshine who's plentiful rays were gladly and thoroughly absorbed all over. My thoughts and feelings which had been developing throughout my trip about Man and Nature, about consciousness and super-consciousness, about the human experience in the Grand Scheme, all seemed to fuse together in a way perfectly illustrated by the natural scenes passing the bus window. I wrote in my notebook:
The sun endlessly pours out its loving radiance giving beautiful life to everything on earth.
Because the sun is there beaming out its energy, life on earth is possible. It does seem incredibly fortunate. How is all this possible? I feel infinitely grateful for these circumstances which enable us to be; but grateful to whom or what???
I was wholly in love with the reality of being.
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