November 21, 2015
It’s the first time in a long while that we’ve felt an end of sorts to our journey. There was so much reticence – so many nerves – wrapped in coming to North Africa it’s hard to believe that the first leg of this part of the world is coming to an end. Over the course of the past eleven months people have been telling us to avoid these countries; from the wonderfully vivid octegenarian outside our hotel in Dartmouth, NS, to an experienced world-traveller in Rome, to a guard at the ferry to Tunisia itself – we’ve been warned again and again. Yet Tunisia has shown us a welcome and tiny glimpse into life along the northern edge of this vast continent. And, through all of the excitement and anxiety of anticipation, to the joy and shock of being here – it’s hard to believe that todays short ride will be the last unknown road for us here.
Leaving Kairouan is much easier than arriving. There are no kids on inline skates making a grab at our bags and we have a good mental idea of how to find our way out of town. It’s not long before we’re back onto the straight desert roads heading like an arrow for the northeast, a place that holds the promise of cooler breezes along the gulf of Hammamet. We’re heading to Sousse to spend two last nights with our friends Mudy and Lorena before resting our bones in Hammamet and catching a ferry back to Palermo.
There’s more camel meat for sale along this stretch of road than any other section we’ve travelled in Tunisia. It’s a thought that crosses my mind as I see aged camels sitting next to barbeques with a look similar to the sheep we’ve seen throughout the country. Slaughtered and skinned, sections of them hang from hooks ready to be grilled for the regulars that flock to the cafés with the promise of a decent meal – all the while a man fans the coals filling the air with a rich charred smell.
And next to it all, the camels sit seemingly aware that this is indeed what it’s come to.
The towns are simply shades of beige until we get closer to the coast where they transform into the traditional white and blue. We move off of the main road and onto a country lane that cuts towards Sousse through more olive farms and a road that gently weaves, offering us a chance to use our muscles for the first time in an hour. It’s quiet on the road and, to be honest, it’s nice to have a route free of people drifting into our lane. The people along this stretch share an occasional wave though for the most part the local reaction is more reflective of our own subdued state.
Kids in this part of Tunisia aren’t hanging out roadside to give us high-fives or the run after us as we pass – their standing at impromptu tables set to sell family products to anyone who’ll stop. Often it’s fresh bread; sometimes it’s bit’s and pieces collected from the surrounding landscape. It’s lean in these parts and scraping a living together is a family affair.
In stark contrast, our arrival onto the strip along Kantaoui is met by the hustle and bustle of a tourist trade in second gear. This is a return visit for us; things are the same as they were a few weeks prior but it’s nice to be back. It’s nice to feel like a place is familiar and the anticipation of seeing friends makes the last stretch of this road feel downright homey. Turning right onto the long dirt that leads to Lorena and Mudys apartment we’re surprised to find it covered in a healthy covering of sand – the motorcyclists favorite surface!
Drifting our way to their door, it’s hard not to notice the copious amounts of construction material mixed with the fresh sand – nails, pipe, broken glass, tin – basically everything that can slash a tire is part of the driveway. Amazingly, we arrive with our tires still full of air and a fresh covering of sand for the bikes. Lovely. The engines aren’t even off when Mudy and Lorena emerge from their place with massive smiles and arms outstretched. We’re so lucky to have friends like this.
Once again we get to park the bikes in a large empty parking lot tucked nicely behind their apartment. This time the guardian who slept by our bikes last time is away and Mudy moves some branches around to create an impromptu shelter that keeps the bikes away from prying eyes. Feeling quite comfortable with the safety of the bikes we head inside where, once again, our hosts have given up their room for us. We try to argue, but it’s no use!
After unloading the bikes and cleaning up Mudy lets us know that they’d like to take us somewhere and, after a short drive in the little white van (once again with Nita and Lorena surfing in the back) we arrive at a non-descript dirt road that winds its way along some equestrian fields before revealing a gate to a walled café. Inside, the place is beautiful.
There’s a large garden filled with flowers and birds of every description, and everywhere around us families are picnicking or playing. It’s a wonderful place that Lorena and Mudy stumbled upon during a weekend drive; they often road-trip without plans and explore roads that seem interesting. This place is at the end of one of those frequently passed-by roads and reminds us of how many things we miss by simply not taking an unplanned turn. One bird is sporting a Don King-esque hair-do while a rooster is so big it’s hard to believe it’s not a medium-sized dog disguised as a bird! Seeing us approach, he makes a bee-line right for us as if to let us know we’re on his turf. Face to face with the monstrosity, it’s us that breaks the stare and backs away slowly. Big bird: 1, world-travellers: 0. It’s a crushing defeat.
With image of the giant birds fierce eyes still burned into our minds, we retreat to Hergla for a coffee. We passed through the town on the way south but somehow managed to miss the wonderful waterfront in our rush to find the lost road. Sitting by the window with truly beautiful friends, the sky over the gulf has turned black and the wind is now blowing with anger over the coast. With the sun below the horizon, we make our way down a backroad toward Kantaoui and a wonderful tagine dinner that’s been cooking in our absence.
The pitch black road is another eye-opener for us in Tunisia (it’s never to late to learn new lessons). Along the coast, people pack their cases of Celtia beer and park along the water and drink in secret. Technically a “Dry” country, plenty of folks here imbibe but there’s still a stigma attached to it. So, for some, hiding away to keep their habit secret is the only answer. It also means that in the dark, this stretch of road can be quite treacherous as half-corked locals pull out onto the road without much care for who’s coming. It’s a bit of a white-knuckle drive.
We safely make it back to the apartment and the smells that await us are incredible! Lorena’s tagine of kefta, eggs and vegetables is done and in no time we’re all enjoying one of the most fantastic meals we’ve eaten this entire journey. I think our only regret is that there aren’t four more tagines to eat! The flavours are so rich that our mouths seem overwhelmed with what’s happening, and with each bite a fragrant aroma fills our heads like an intoxicating perfume. Lorena is a masterful chef who manages to infuse every bite with a dash of love. It’s a wonderful night.
After breakfast at our favorite little spot in Sousse, we head to the beautiful and vibrant city of Monastir which is not only the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, but also his resting place. As president of Tunisia, Bourguiba was controversial and popular, and his mausoleum here in the heart of Monastir is incredibly busy. A steady line of people flock into the guilded halls and ornate rooms that wind themselves around the central chamber where Bourguiba’s tomb rests. Imprisoned many times by the French during their colonization of Tunisia, Bourguiba focused on education and womens rights after taking office – while also maintaining a rule that bordered on authoritarian. Still, walking through these halls, it’s easy to see that many of these people miss the personal and economic stability that existed under his leadership.
In the square outside, people sit on park benches watching camels being led down the pavement in the hopes of finding someone desperate for a picture. Men selling toys talk with children and carts filled with brightly painted pottery catch our eyes at every turn. Incredibly, just beyond this square and it’s carnival-like atmosphere lies a massive cemetery where we can see thousands of headstones. At first it’s a strange counterpoint to what we’re experiencing in the square, but in reality the cemetery is a point of pride. In fact, the sense of joy surrounding the burial grounds makes it seem almost more appropriate – a constant celebration of life as opposed to the sadness of death. Everything here isso alive, we feel happier by simply being in the midst of it.
Mudy asks if we’d like to visit the cemetery and, for once, we politely decline. It does look beautiful – much like the one we escaped to in Hammamet nearly a month ago – but sightseeing in a cemetery is still a bit of a foreign idea for us. An interesting fact: In Tunisia, if you plug a city into your GPS and ask for “Points of Interest” almost all of your answers are going to point you to a cemetery – like they’re the only interesting thing to see! If I was standing next to the ancient ruins of Sbeitla and asked my GPS to show me something interesting it would take me to the nearest graveyard first. Or a nomad camp.
After watching the people mill about the square, we make our way through a fishing port – one of Mudy’s favorite things to do and something that’s quickly becoming a favorite of mine too. There’s something about watching people work on nets or their boats that just feels right. We wander between the wooden hulls and pass by men sitting on the ground fixing torn netting and, while we’re out of place, we’re met constantly with warm welcomes and smiles. Mudy works with fish-farms in the region and this is his world; he’s completely at home here and it shows on his face whenever he talks about the sea.
Our next stop is the beautiful town of Mahdia and, with it’s narrow streets, it doesn’t take long for us to get stuck in the same give-and-go traffic flow that met us in Amalfi. Stuck behind a truck, we wait patiently for a stream of cars travelling in the opposite direction until, finally, the truck dashes into a gap allowing our direction to travel a while. It’s fantastic! The town itself is so beautiful; traditional white and blue houses line every street and the people pop against the stark backdrop.
Amid the traffic – and there’s plenty of it – the kids play their version of the beautiful game. Weaving between impatient cars and yelling to friends down the road for a pass, it’s hard not to realize how rare this scene is at home. There are no parents or signs warning of the obvious dangers, yet somehow all the kids have survived the day – not to romanticize the environment or imply that they all will either. It’s that the world children grow up in here is so different that it’s sometimes hard to not worry over things kids have been doing here for generations. Many of the kids we’ve been fortunate enough to meet have wise eyes; the youthfulness of their play belies a wisdom that has nothing to do with their age, but their experience.
Further down the road, our eyes are opened once again to the balance between the living and the dead here; for all of it’s beauty, the dead have the best plot of land in Mahdia. Set along the waterfront, the gravestones stretch out along the beach offering an eternal respite from the hard bustle of everyday life here. In passing they receive a gift of endless sunrises and sunsets along the blue waters of the Mediterranean. There is only tranquility here.
Back in the little white truck, we pass by camels resting in the park and through one more fishing port before making our way back into Sousse for a wonderful dinner at a tiny restaurant in the heart of this vibrant city. It’s no Lorena meal, but it’s great to have her unburdened with the preparation of another feast.
Our drive back to the apartment is filled with thoughtful silence. There have been so many wonderful places and people that, for us, it would be easy to simply form a romantic picture of life in Tunisia. But in reality it’s not an easy life here. The people work hard, the environment is at a critical juncture, women’s rights are clashing with religious conservatism, corruption is a growing concern and both the political and economic future remains uncertain. Yet on this drive home, we see the everyday life that we love – the life that may appear different at it’s surface but, after peeling away the layers, ties us all together.
The hour or so on the road reveals the same things we may see anywhere: a gaggle of incomprehensible roadsigns, people texting and driving, end-of-day traffic and roadside breakdowns. If these seemingly superficial moments can be so familiar then it fills us with hope that, at a fundamental level, we’re all in this journey together – wanting the same important wants, needing the same important needs – the fundamental threads that tie us together regardless of how much we pretend they don’t exist. Everything that divides us is a human invention.
We wake up the next morning to a lovely egg breakfast to keep us nourished for our journey to Hammamet; Lorena can’t help but spoil us with her cooking! Mudy, who has to work this morning, has already been to the office and returned to see us off. Before he has to return to work, we load the bikes up, say our farewells and formulate a quick plan to meet in Hammamet in a couple of days – thereby managing to avoid any tearful goodbyes, for the moment.
Soon we’re back on the familiar road heading north and, in what feels like the blink of an eye, we’re pulling back into the familiar confines of the beach-front hotel that welcomed us to Tunisia nearly a month ago. We’ve decided to take a few days here to catch our breath before dealing with the border and ferry that returns us to Palermo. The idea of a warm beach and quiet feels like the right thing to do at the moment – though the sun has developed a shyness that keeps it hiding behind the clouds during our stay.
True to their word, Lorena and Mudy manage to make it up to Hammamet a couple of days later and we’re excited to see them. Before they arrive my phone rings and, on the end of the line, is my uncle Abdulsalam who lives in Benghazi, Libya. He asks where we are, expecting (I think) us to be long gone from Tunisia. I explain that a couple of ferry changes mean we’re still here and he lets me know that he’s in Tunis with my aunt Salma and her son Hafez. An hour later another call lets me know that he’s in the hotel lobby; I get to meet my uncle who I’ve met only once as a small child, my aunt and my cousin – both of whom I’ve never met!
I’m immediately taken aback by how much Abdulsalam looks like my dad who passed away in 1999. They could be twins! It’s hard to describe the joy at seeing him walk around the corner but needless to say it’s wonderful moment. I lead them all down to the restaurant and introduce them to Nita, Mudy and Lorena – family and extended family all in one room!
Lunch is, well, hilarious. Abdulsalam has the humor and disposition of a boy who’s up to no good in the best possible way. Cheeky remarks and coy smiles seem to be his trademark and in no time we’re planning visits to Morocco and talking of cool chiantis. He tells me stories about my dad I’ve never heard (they typically contained plenty of smokes and unhealthy doses of whisky) and it’s clear to me that as much as I miss dad, Abdulsalam misses him even more. They’re peas in a pod – though this man still has his humor intact. In fact the brothers – Ahmed, Abdulsalam and Raj – are pieces of a complex personality puzzle that have produced some wonderfully kind, loyal and fierce men. It’s something I’m only putting together as I meet them… but I’m incredibly proud to be a part of their ranks.
Salma doesn’t speak English so our conversations are limited by what Abdulsalam or Mudy interpret for me – though to be honest, when I’m talking her nods and body language seem to insinuate she understands me just fine. She has a gentle smile and her hand often makes the journey across the table to grasp mine. After a while, she removes a beautiful ring and shows it to Nita before simply giving it to her! “A wedding present.” It’s beautiful.
My cousin Hafez shares his mothers great smile and the mischievous grin of his uncle. Abdulsalam tells me of the time that, during the height of fighting during the Libyan revolution, Hafez drove a visiting cousin 1300 km to Cairo evading gunfire and security forces to fly her home to Portland. Then, he turned around and did it again to get home. It’s an unbelievable story and yet when I ask him about it, Hafez smiles and suggests it was simply the right thing to do.
All too soon it’s time for the family to leave. Abdulsalam rises from his chair and abruptly announces that he wont say goodbye before giving us all generous hugs and singing, “Hello, Goodbye.” by the Beatles which immediately reminds us of uncle Ahmed and Wendy! Salma and Hafez follow suit and, with a gut-wrenching swiftness, I see them crest the stairs, wave and disappear into the hotel. As sad as their departure is, today has been magic and I feel so, so fortunate to have spent time with them. I truly hope that the situation in Libya stabilizes and we get to visit them in the near future.
Through the excitement of the unexpected family reunion, our friends Mudy and Lorena have been absolute champs. Rather than sitting quiet and awkward, they (with Mudy’s excellent English, Arabic and Spanish skills) helped keep everyone talking and, I think, they quickly became honorary Breibishes today! They’re in. Mudy suggests one last road trip in the little white van and soon we’re on our way to Hammamet Sud – a newer area not far from our hotel. The area is definitely on the higher-end of the living scale in Tunisia and plays host to vacation properties for the more well-off in Tunisia. Although it’s unlike most of the Tunisia we’ve come to know and love, it’s touristy accessibility and beauty makes for a vibrant and colorful experience. We walk around the marina and through some of the newer communities that flank it – though many of them are quiet now that the off-season has taken hold. The fake pirate ships that haul half-corked tourists out into the gulf blasting dance-music sit quietly abandoned here and only a handful of vendors try half-heartedly to flog their wares.
After grabbing a café along the water, we drive back to the hotel and say a final goodbye. We’re not sure when we’ll see them again; we hope to meet up with Mudy’s parents in Agadir, Morocco, and visit Lorena’s home in Spain – but when we’ll meet again is a mystery. We stop alongside the road outside the hotel and, with tears swelling in Lorena’s eyes we share some heart-felt hugs before watching them disappear into the south. It’s a hard goodbye.
The next day we take our time getting ready for the ferry and the hotel graciously lets us check out quite late. After a lazy morning of getting ready and loading the bikes we once again make our way north along the road that introduced us to Tunisia. Our mood is once again reflective and somehow everything around us seems muted and quiet. The only hiccup in the journey to the port comes when I once again ignore the GPS and follow the road signs to what turns out to be the commercial port. A trucker waves us back to the road and a quick road-side chat with three locals has us quickly back on track.
Just inside the port it doesn’t take long for a gaggle of “Fixers” to start pushing various forms into our hands. We’re familiar enough with the process now to know what’s going to happen and the key, for us, is to simply not rush and find a fixer we can at least communicate with. They also show us where the boat will be boarding from – we’re first in line in an otherwise empty area of the port.
It’s Nita’s turn to stay with the bikes and my first attempt to check-in with the ferry company is foiled by a closed ticket office – much to the dismay of one of our fixers who thinks the hiccup will cost him his payment. As always, they start at a ridiculous price – €40 ($55) for a piece of paper and walking us to the entrance. It always starts like this. In the end we pay $10TND – about $6 – for their help – a fair price for both of us.
My second trip to the ticket office is a success and soon enough I have the boarding tickets in my hand. Even here there are fixers for a different purpose – these guys get you to the front of the line if waiting isn’t your style. The “service” will of course cost a fee (probably another $10TND) plus a kickback to the worker in the booth (another $5TND). The truth is, kickbacks are the lubricant that keep borders moving in North Africa; you pay someone and they pay someone else for letting it happen. I forego getting a fixer since I’m second in line, but I’m sure there are times when the minimal cost would make a lot of sense – though it wont make you popular with the folks in line who’ve been waiting hours. You’ve been warned!
Approaching the bikes, I notice that we’re no longer alone. Rather, we’re surrounded by a ton of adventure bikes – and Nita seems to be surrounded by guys. A loud “ISSA!!” from the crowd brings a smile to my face; we’ve been surrounded by the Mukka-Group, a group of riders from Italy who, unbelievably, have recognized us from the internet. I’m met by a flurry of camera’s, folks posing for pics with us by the bikes and plenty of good laughs. These guys are a ton of fun! Suddenly, waiting a few hours for the ferry doesn’t seem that unpleasant at all.
With plenty of laughs and a steady supply of questionable dates purchased from the vendors that hover around us ceaselessly, we pass the time sharing stories and posing for more photos. A couple of vendors begin arguing and then shoving one another before the meeker (and more troubled of the two) makes a hasty retreat into the background. Just before the gates are opened, he returns to show us his wares one last time. This time he’s aggressive and persistent; sensing that our moods are changing he simply starts begging for money. It’s hard to watch but there’s something about him that isn’t quite right. As we get ready to leave, in the creepiest way possible, he simply stares at Nita and tells her that he loves her. Oi.
Soon the far gate swings wide and everyone makes their way in. The process is fairly straight forward: Export and embarkation forms filled out plus the white and green vehicle entry forms we were given (signed and stamped) upon entry into Tunisia. We park the bikes near a booth and the guard inspects the green and whites while looking for the entry stamp in our passports, stamps and signs again, then gives the white back. The next stop is the police who check passports and tell us to wait in a particular spot until they’ve had enough of us being there. Then we move along to a line and wait by the boat to board. There, another policeman asks for the passports and repeats the same process as the previous policeman. Then, after a long wait, the ticket guys ask for boarding passes and load us on.
Eventually, we actually board the boat and immediately see a familiar face; Raul, a Filipino man who tied down our bikes on the way to Tunisia, remembers us and shares a few smiles and jokes as we load the bikes. It’s always nice to see someone we’ve met before. Once everything’s been tied down, everyone makes a mad dash to the decks to find a decent place to sleep and the scene is much like the ferry ride to Tunisia with people strewn everywhere along the floor. We have a pullman seat reserved but the ideas of “reservations” on the Tunisian express is an abstract idea. Since it’s an evening ferry, we find a seat and manage to scrounge together some euros for a bevy and some dinner – which is surprisingly hearty for the change we have in hand. After saying a quick hello to the mukka group which has taken over a large corner of the cafeteria, we blow up our air mattresses and cozy up on the floor underneath our REV’IT! gear again. For the next few hours, the sound of footsteps keep us awake; people are on the hunt for seat cushions to make an impromptu bed out of.
After having a few people try their hand at nabbing our pillows from under our gear, I eventually sit in the chair to catch some zzz’s. It’s a rough night that remains mostly devoid of sleep. I do manage to pass out for the last stretch into Palermo and, after some deft maneuvering from our captain the ferry backs up to the dock ready to unload and already impatient crowd.
Palermo in the morning light is more beautiful than we remember. The green hills roll off in either direction, framed by the blue of the water and the sky. The beauty of northern Sicily seems suddenly intense, almost as if we’ve never seen it before. Of course, our previous route through Sicily means that we didn’t have a chance to really explore the northern coast but the next few days will give us a glimpse into it’s beauty. Being away for a month has granted us a new perspective on an old(er) experience – one of the joys of travel.
People who purchase cabins are quickly ushered off the ship and the rest of us wait behind a rope while a lone guard lets a few Tunisians enter the immigration line at a time. After 45 minutes, we’ve hardly budged and tempers begin to flare. A group of four men along the rope begin having words with the guard who, annoyed with their impatience, proceeds to let other people behind the men pass. Suddenly the deck is filled with yelling, fist-waving and an increasing sense of unease.
Another 30 minutes pass and finally, we’re near the front. The guard allows a few to pass and pulls the rope across my waist to stop my entrance into immigration; we’re hot, the bags are heavy and we’re getting annoyed. Another guard approaches us and asks where we’re from and, when I tell him, he waves us through then turns to unleash his displeasure on the other guard. He’s quite angry, but we don’t know why. After tearing a strip off of his colleague he turns to us and asks if we’re alright. Stunned, I let him know we’re fine and he explains that Europeans and North Americans don’t have to stand in line with the Tunisians and that he regretted the oversight by his colleague. We’re still stunned. He asks again if we’re alright and we can’t help but think that it’s all a bit misguided. I mean, yes, it would be nice to get through the line faster but we’re all in the same class so we expect the same treatment – no skin off our backs. It just seems a little wrong that our passports would garner special treatment with all of these families waiting in the same heat – the same close quarters – to get off this boat.
Still, we went through it with the regulars, and we’re glad to be off.
We filter through immigration, then ride to customs where we hear hoots and hollers from the ship. Up on the top deck, the Mukka-Group is waving goodbye to us – some sporting only the tiniest speedo! The sight is funny enough that even the customs official starts to laugh. With a wink and a smile, the guard stamps our passports and sends us on our way.
We look up and wave a final goodbye to our friends before joining the fray of Sicilian traffic. It doesn’t take long for me to use my horn.