November 21, 2015
Our time in Hammamet is beautifully relaxing. Granted it’s not a representation of the Tunisia that exists to the south but it’s a great place for us to get ready for the coming days and our journey ahead. Our friend Koray from Nice has sent us a note letting us know that the French government has just issued a travel warning for its citizens venturing into southern Tunisia but with the sheer number of people travelling in that direction we’re confident that the threat is still a very remote possibility.
We haven’t really had any beach time on our trip yet and, after reading about our friends Heike and Filippo, and Daniel and Sara’s breaks in the sand, we figure it’s high time we take a moment to work on nothing in particular by a beautiful body of water. The idea is simple: no walking,no riding – just relaxing.
The Sindbad Hotel is rather plush and another deal Nita finds online. The room is large and the price is amazing considering the facilities and the beautiful breakfast that’s included in the price. There are a fair amount of tourists here – even a mother and daughter from Quebec who upon finding out that we’re from Calgary quickly decide not to talk to us! Oh well, we love Quebec even if this particular twosome don’t like Albertans. There’s a nice beach that’s calling our name and the quiet here is already forcing the tension from our bodies.
With the first three days accounted for, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that the ten days we’ve planned for Tunisia is far too short.We take a while to weigh the risks of staying longer before sending an email to Grimaldi Lines and extending our visit for another week. The most action we see during our stay here is a long walk along the beach to the Medina in Hammamet proper. Much like our experience in Mexico, once out of the hotel boundaries it’s a free for all for merchants and tour-operators to solicit their wares. The first man offers camel rides along the beach. Not interested? Horse rides. No? How about ATV rides in the desert? Still no? How about a pirate ship from Sousse? Really? no? And so it goes.
After finally accepting our rejection he follows us at a distance down the beach until we stop to admire a baby turtle that’s nearly found itself under Nita’s right foot. Another, older, man approaches us and talks to us before asking if we’d like a necklace he’s made. He’s got an amazing face and while we turn down his offer, he smiles and wanders off in the opposite direction seemingly happy to have had a chat. By this time, the other man’s caught up and is apparently convinced we’ll have changed our minds by now. Astonished, my body language and a stern “No” lets him know we’re finished with the pleasantries and he seems to get the message. Hammamet is a tourist town and this is part of the cost of admittance.
We reach the edge of the beach where the hotels no longer manage them and the sand is lined with garbage that’s been washed up from the sea. The water reflects a moody sky and tranquil blue-green that’s beautiful. Our left is flanked by half-built homes that are now lying derelict and covered in a mix of Arabic, French and English graffiti. In one burned-out shell of a house a group of kids with giant smiles are exploring one of it’s upper rooms. Just before we reach the Medina, we pass a line of fishermen preparing their boats for a day on the water and we’re the happy recipients of warm smiles and sheepish waves.
Even though walking was supposed to be avoided at all costs on our rest day we don’t feel quite done when we reach the Medina. It’s giant walls and traditionally Arabic white and blue homes are calling our names – as soon as we make it through another round of local merchants. One tries to dump a hawk on Nita’s shoulder and, feigning a look of horror, stops him in his tracks while also snapping some discreet pics of him and his lovely bird. Others pretend they want to talk before handing us a couple of sprigs of jasmine which, once delivered into our hands receives a hat-tip to reveal a stash of coins to which we’re meant to add. It’s fine – this man has a wonderful demeanor and we’re feeling alright about adding to the small collection he’s forming.
The medina quarter is an ancient walled town comprised of narrow streets which are free from car and scooter traffic. A few of the cities in Tunisia have them and this one is known as tourist hot-spot where the labyrinth which worked against invaders in years gone-by also works against anyone wanting to spend some time just walking it’s streets. We decide to take a walk though it’s white walls and it’s a non-stop barrage of “Come in. Look, no buy. You’re German?” One of the craftier ways the shop-owners try to lure us into their stores is by asking how much “something” is at home – but the “something” is a completely made-up word. It goes like this:
“Friend. How much is a chebaka where you come from?”
“Sorry, a what?”
“Come inside. I show you. No buy – just look.”
“Good one…. very sneaky!”
The ploy is a good one even though we manage to foil it before setting inside and with a chuckle we’re about to continue on our way when his friend asks how much my tattoo cost. “Just enough” is my usual answer. It’s another thing that happens often in tourist zones everywhere and one of the things that makes me the most uncomfortable – but it’s an hourly question here.
Directional arrows on the streets are designed to lead us deeper into the medina and by following in the opposite direction we eventually find our way out. Emerging into a square provides a nice respite from the continual pull of people selling something before discovering a cemetery and walking it’s length – finding a little peace as we admire the beautiful tile work that adorns the benches, headstones and surrounding walls.This particular cemetery is unlike anything Nita and I have seen before; the colorfully hand-painted tiles and surrounding beauty provide a textured backdrop to a strangely tranquil place. We take some time to take it all in before heading back into the bustling square.
We find a café by the water and settle into the rhythm of the town by enjoying a nice thé à la menthe – also known as thé nanah in arabic or “tourist tea” by the locals. If drinking this makes me a tourist then so be it – it’s delicious! Feeling as though our day in Hammamet is done, we walk back along the beach to our home, spending the rest of our time here enjoying what the hotel has to offer and warming ourselves on the amazing beach that it sits along.
Our time in Hammamet is wonderfully relaxing and everything we hope it would be, and now we feel ready to face the different Tunisia that lies to the south. Lorena and Mudy from the ferry have been in touch and we’ve arranged to stay with them in Port Kantaoui – just north of Sousse – and we’re excited to spend some time with people we know. By the time we pack the bikes, the sun is high and the heat is well into the thirties.
The days route takes us south and rather than take the secondary highway straight to Sousse, we’re taking a road through Hergla where there’s a viewpoint overlooking of the Bay of Hammamet. Riding in Tunisia is a return to straight roads that resemble the lines of Canada’s prairies in their efficiency to get from point A to point B. In all honesty the landscape would be beautiful if it weren’t covered in garbage. There’s not a spot of land that doesn’t have some kind of waste blowing over it. Shoes to washing machines, full bags of household waste to thousands of empty plastic bottles – the landscape here has become a garbage heap.
We pass a number of check-points along the way without issue, slowing as we approach the stop signs before usually receiving a wave or nod and hitting the gas again. Eventually though, we’re waved to the side of the road by two policemen who, at first, look quite stern. My heart seems quite calm with being pulled over and none of the typical adrenaline-rush that I’d experience at home seems to happen – which is perhaps why I meet the officer with a smile rather than concern. His partner begins to cross the street and, after asking me a question I don’t fully understand, I simply point at the map and recite the name of our destination.
He seems to take this as asking for directions and he happily shows me the road I already know we’re on. Pointing at his bike we notice it’s the same model as Nita’s and give it the thumbs-up which is rewarded with huge smiles and a high-five! We talk for a moment before he signals we’re free to go and Nita asks if she can take a picture which he declines with a smile and a finger wag. It doesn’t really matter since Nita’s GoPro has been running the entire time and the bright, flashing LED on her head seems to have gone unnoticed by our two officers – which is probably lucky for us! Another handshake and we’re once again on our way.
Heading east towards Hergla is the first time we feel truly off the beaten path. The faces along this road are a little more stern and the people a little more weathered by a hard life working in the olive farms that line these roads. We get a playful finger from a young boy who’s manning the controls of a donkey cart before passing a long-closed go-karting center and entering the streets of this small town. The street along the water provides some nice views of the Gulf of Hammamet but the center of town feels a far-cry from Hammamet which we expect. Heading south we travel along a road that the GPS believes doesn’t exist and stop for a break along a packed-sand road with spectacular views away from the hustle and bustle of people.
Looking down at the ground by our feet we notice that the ants here are pretty big! They also look like they’ve been crossed with spiders at some point as they run chaotically around the bikes with their bums held high in the air. We take a moment to just breathe in the moment; we’re here, in North Africa, riding alone towards the Sahara. A feeling of euphoria swells inside.
Our friends Mudy and Lorena live just north of Sousse in Port El Kantaoui, whose strip is more Vegas or Miami than Tunisia. Massive hotels line the beach and neon signs flash “Miami” and “Hawaii Center” along it’s length. There are plenty of tourists making their way along the street and practical shops are flanked by 4×4 tours and ATV rentals. We park the bikes in front of a hotel store and the owner comes out for a quick chat before offering to watch the bikes. It’s one of the cool little things that makes riding a bike in Tunisia fun; store owners will watch the bikes for even a nominal purchase allowing us to relax while we’re away. In this case, the “guardian fee” is a pen that barely works, but at 25 cents it’s cheap security.
We don’t have the address for our friends but call them for a pick-up and in a matter of minutes we see their smiles emerge from a little white van. It’s a warm welcome and we’re happy to see familiar faces – even if they’ve only been familiar for a few days! Following them along the busy streets, we turn right down a gnarly dirt road before coming to a stop just before the beach. A caged parking lot is home to the motorcycles for the night and, as added insurance, Mudy pays man across the street to act as a guardian for the night – a job he seems honored to accept.
Heading inside their apartment, Mudy and Lorena show us their room and offer it to us for the night – something we flatly try to refuse; we’re happy on the couch but, much like my uncle Ahmed, he’s stubborn with kindness! There’s no point in arguing, their minds are made up and we’re the lucky benefactors of a cozy room and generous friends. The local stray-cat has adopted them and made friends with Nita in record time which continues to amaze me considering her previous stance with cats. Still, this little guy is clean and cute, and always ready for a little petting from a willing hand.
Other than Mudy and Lorena, the apartment complex is completely empty. Owners return in the summer but move back to their homes for the rest of the year leaving our friends as the sole inhabitants of a beach-side domain. It’s quite lovely to be in a space like this with no one about and to hear the sea rolling onto the beach when the windows are open.
After settling into our place and sharing a drink or two, Mudy suggests taking us to the marina in Sousse and grabbing an early bite to eat – a pre-dinner-dinner if you like – but for us it’s already dinner time! The white van is a two-seater, so Nita and Lorena get to surf the roads aboard a cushion stolen from their sofa and Mudy’s impression of Tunisian drivers comes with a shriek at every corner! The marina is beautiful and Mudy takes us through a boat-building area which is always a cool thing to see. Men are busy finishing up a days work on the hulls of different sized boats and we take a moment to walk along the water.
We stop at a café for a pizza that’s who’s thin crust us covered with cheese, marinara and tuna – it’s a first for us but plenty of meals here come with tuna either as an ingredient or as a starter with harissa and olives. After our meal and a Celtia, we head through the vibrant city-center in Sousse which is a real eye-opener. Young an hip, the night is dominated by color and fashion as the kids make their way from eateries to a boardwalk that could easily be mistaken for Italy. This place is cool.
Eventually we make our way back to the apartment to enjoy a home cooked meal and some time chatting with our new friends. Their place is incredibly homey and Lorena has decorated all of the surfaces with incredibly intricate paper creations all made with a care that seems rare. Each piece is made from hundreds of smaller pieces that fit together with a precision we didn’t know existed in paper. With Lores talent revealed, Mudy steps up and begins demonstrating his impressive magic skills! And we’re not exaggerating – he’s a studied magician with awesome skills!
Beyond his substantial magic skills (skillz, even) Mudy has a fascination with puzzle boxes. They’re a popular item in some Mediterranean countries and we’ve been seeing more and more of them pop up. Honestly though, we’ve never seen any like these. The first box simply demonstrates a whimsical approach to engineering – move one piece here and another pocket opens over there. It’s remarkable. The second box is truly a puzzler that requires more steps than I can remember to open it. It’s a wonderful idea and, with plenty of help from Mudy and Lorena, we finally manage to get it open – only to find a wooden sculpture of a camel hidden at it’s centre. Nita had mentioned our excitement at seeing camels to them on the ferry and, finding this little gift, left it hidden for her in the box to find. Just lovely. We promise them to take photos of it along our travels, much like the famous garden gnome who, stolen from a family plot, travelled the globe sending photos home much to the dismay of it’s owners – before finally being returned.
Lorena tells us she’s going to be making us Chicken Shwarma for dinner – from scratch – including the pita – all with only a single pan in her possession! Of course this means each item is cooked one at a time; first the chicken, then the vegetables, then the pita. When we ask about buying another pan, she makes it clear that this is just the way they like it – no excess baggage for a smaller apartment and less dishes to clean after cooking.
They have an easy-going and fun-loving spirit and seem to lack any concern for time; they let the moments move them and it’s something we truly appreciate. We all get a good laugh in as we look up the clock – it’s now nearly 9:30pm and Lorena is just getting started. Before we know it we’re thoroughly enjoying a midnight meal! Even for our hosts this is a late dinner, but the food and the time spent leading up to it is well worth the wait. Full and sleepy, we turn in for the night and plan for a reasonable departure time the following day.
In the morning, Mudy’s excited to take us out for breakfast even though we’re all still full from a dinner that doesn’t seem that long ago. We pile into the white van and make our way once again into Sousse – though this time not quite in the center of town. Nita comments that this version of being stuffed into the back of a van in North Africa is far better than the scenarios we had imagined prior to our arrival! Indeed, with kidnappings in Algeria and the media-hype surrounding deteriorating security conditions here, we had moments of worry, but nothing in Tunisia convinces us that our safety is any more precarious than it normally is.
Breakfast is ridiculous in the best possible way. Mudys friend is a waiter and the meal is simply delivered in waves which appear without ordering. Chickpea soup, breads (baked and fried), honeys, halwa, omelet’s, brik and coffee – all topped off with a small cup of fruits – it’s quite a treat! The restaurant is thoroughly modern with half-tone prints of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn adorning much of the free-space and a contrast to the tourist-oriented designs of restaurants along the strip which is perhaps why this place is packed with young, hip locals.
Remembering that my helmet visor has been taped together, we begin search for replacement screws – something that’s made much easier with Mudy’s help! After a few false-starts, we find a tiny hardware store tucked in what looks like the hallway between to larger automotive shops. Describing the type of bolt we need, the man behind the counter retrieves a few dusty cardboard boxes filled with screws and begins fingering through them before pulling out four identical bolts – the right kind (M6) but the wrong length. Telling him that I need 12mm bolts rather than the 20mm ones in his hand, he pulls out a hacksaw and, with the help of a vice and an assistant, cut’s them down to the right size. The total for the four screws and ten minutes of labor is a staggering ten cents.
With the afternoon approaching and a decent ride still ahead of us, we make our way back to Mudy and Lorena’s home to pack the bikes and say our goodbyes. It’s a difficult one – we feel surprisingly close to them considering we’ve known them for such a short time. They’re kindred spirits and beautiful souls much like Jean, Kelley and Maya in Halifax. With everything ready to go, we make a plan to try and see each other on our return trip before once again riding down the gnarly road, turning left and beginning our journey south into the Tunisia some choose not to see. While the Gulf of Hammamet provides a familiar and relaxing setting for a beach-side getaway, the south leads into the Sahara and a different glimpse into life in Tunisia.