Onwards to Tunis!
If you remember the trials and tribulations that we went through at the beginning of this series, you know that we were delayed by 3 days due to a massive blizzard. This made it inevitable that some part of our trip was going to get the ax, and after we crunched the numbers, it ended up being Tunis. I wasn't happy about it, but it was the right call. When you travel, you gotta roll with the punches.
Tunisia was going to be my second country in Africa, so I was excited to at least get a taste for it. We didn't have much time here, but we would still be able to see a decent chunk of Tunis. The flight here from Algiers was short but green and scenic as we made our way horizontally across the top of Africa. And as our plane made its final decent over northern Tunisia, I was excited. Here are a few pictures I snapped out the window. Drink 'em in, because everything went to shit from here.
🇹🇳 Tunis & Tunisia In 60 Seconds 🇹🇳
Tunisia, like Algeria, speaks a combination of French and Arabic. The capital of Tunisia is Tunis, and this country's population is coming up on 12 million. It's northern shores have an arid but green(ish) Mediterranean climate, but by the time you get to the southernmost stretches of the country, you're in full-blown Sahara Desert.
Here's a fun fact for all you fellow Stars Wars nerds out there: Tunisia is Tatooine. Or, it's where they filmed it at least. This fictional place was inspired by a real Tunisian town, which is also called Tataouine. It looks an awful lot like Star Wars, and you really can go there if you're a super-fan. But let's get into the real stuff now...
In the 2000s, Tunisia had been shaping up to be a major tourist economy in North Africa, even gaining ground on its tourist-filled neighbors, Morocco and Egypt. But then, in 2010 and 2011, the Tunisian Revolution happened. The Tunisian Revolution was the first in a concentrated series of Middle Eastern and North African revolutions called the "Arab Spring." This revolution ousted Tunisia's former autocratic government, and was fueled by all the usual suspects: corruption, inflation, unemployment, and lack of freedom.
Tunisia has always had a reputation for being among the most progressive countries in the Islamic world, so it was a fitting place for the Arab Spring to have started. The revolution brought about a much needed democratic government, and in the 7 years that have passed since its inception, the tourism industry has made major strides back towards its former glory. But in 2018, this government isn't living up to its end of the bargain. People are not happy, and this is a detail that is going to matter at the end of this article. But before we get to that, let me tell you my tale of woe, and show you some pretty pictures.
Arriving In Tunis
We walked out the main gates of the airport and squinted as our eyes adjusted to the light. It was overcast but bright. We walked towards the line of taxis waiting for passengers. When we were about 10 yards away, small man with dark hair and bright eyes ran up to us to carry my mother's bag the rest of the way to the taxi. (Oh, I should mention that I'm traveling with my mother at this point—that will matter later in the story). The man took the bag to the first in the line of taxis. There were a few gruff Tunisian men standing around that helped us load in, but in the moment when it was time to close the door and drive away, the door remained open with this small bright-eyed man holding out his hand towards my mother. We were confused. He was murmuring a word over and over again, which we eventually understood to be "tip."
"Ah, I think he wants you to give him a tip" I said. She looked at me expectantly. Normally I would have told the guy to get lost, but my mother is much more charitable than me, so I asked her, "do you want to give him a tip?" The Tunisian men standing around the taxi exchanged a cringing glance and rolled their eyes. She grumbled and forked over a few Diner. This was apparently where she had wanted to me to shoo the man away. My bad.
The door closed and we were off.
Our taxi driver spoke no English, BUT it turned out that he did speak Spanish, randomly. This is the only other language besides English that I do speak, so I was able to communicate fairly easily during that drive. And he was very quick to disassociate himself from the man we had just tipped. He told me that this man was (roughly translated) "not right in the head." I asked if it was mandatory to have tipped this man. Our taxi driver shook his head quickly to say 'no,' but went onto explain that this man was actually a Syrian refugee. "He's not Tunisian!" he said over and over again. "He has 3 wives and many children" our taxi driver explained, "and he has to feed all of them." The implication here was that he really needed the money. I shrugged. He still didn't deserve the tip. "Hace nada" I said, annoyed. The taxi driver laughed. At this point, he proudly explained that, in Tunisia, it is now *officially* illegal to have more than one wife. This was a recent development. He also talked to me about his children that he sends to school in Germany and the U.S. Out the window, Tunisia was whizzing by.
At the end of the drive, we got out on a bustling street and went straight into our hotel. In our room we found no wifi signal, a bathroom door that wouldn't close, and the thick smell of cigarette smoke. This was supposed to have been a nice hotel, so it fell far short of my expectations, but I wanted to spend as little time in this room as possible anyway. I was determined to make the most of what little time I had in Tunis! My mother and I decided to go our separate ways for the day, and meet back up later for dinner.
The medina of the city was just a few blocks from where we were staying, and my plan was to dive in with my camera and get lost as fast as I could. A medina, if you didn't know, is the old Arab or non-European quarter of a North African town. You will also hear this word used in other places, like Morocco. It's a dense area full of tiny winding alleyways, enclosed by very old, military grade walls. Sort of like a castle. The term "casbah / kasbah" (like the one we explored in Algiers) has a similar meaning in this part of the world, the main difference between them being age. A "casbah" is apparently a bit older than a "medina," but they are basically the same thing. The Medina of Tunis is the centerpiece of the city even to this day. Here's a map that I made to show you...
From our hotel, the medina was straight down Avenue de France. This giant causeway was bustling with people, mostly local. There were women walking with their husbands wearing hijabs and traditional Muslim garb, and there were women without hijabs or husbands wearing tight jeans. It was a broad spectrum, which is what I had come to expect. There were lots of high-end fashion retailers, filled with young people wearing apple earbuds and gel in their hair. I could feel it in the air that there was a storm blowing in. Gray clouds swirled over head as I began my walk towards the medina. I couldn't put my finger on why, but this place felt a little uneasy.
At the end of Avenue de France, there is a large square before the medina begins. When I arrived in this square, I began to see white tourists poking their heads out of taxis to start their own explorations. A few steps into this square, and I was already being hassled by pushy salespeople. "Hello! ...Bonjour! .......Hola!" they would say, trying to guess where I was from. I just kept walking. For all they know, I only speak Hungarian. This wasn't my first rodeo. I put my headphones in and took out my camera.
The Medina Of Tunis
Inside the Medina, the main corridors were crowded marketplaces. There were authentic shops run by elderly Tunisian locals dressed in traditional garb selling traditional Arabian spices... and then there were also shops that sold only athletic shoes, run by Tunisian frat bros, blasting Middle Eastern techno music. A wide spectrum of businesses between these two extremes thrived here, right on top of each other. The streets were cobblestone, and there were long stretches of cloth suspended overhead to block the sun.
After a short while of walking through the crowd, I ducked down an alleyway and was surprised to find myself completely alone. The main alley was packed shoulder to shoulder, but the smaller offshoots were completely vacant. And this was how it went. Crowded marketplaces giving way to deserted alleyways. So on and so forth.
It was all insanely photogenic. But the locals all seemed very aware of that. As I walked, people were incessantly trying to talk to me and sell me things. It was on the level of India, which is pretty severe. Most of it was annoying, but there was one younger guy in particular who I crossed paths with a few different times that I remember fondly. Every single time, he wore a big smile and said the usual "Hello/Hola/Bonjour" but I would just keep moving. The final time I saw him, he was calling after me "English? French? Italian? German? Russian?!?" He just looked so puzzled. I always laugh remembering the inflection of his voice. I almost wish I had just given in and talked to him. He seemed nice.
Honestly though, putting that one guy aside, this whole experience had kind of a hostel vibe for some reason. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. It definitely felt like a clear departure from the warm, welcoming, almost-European atmosphere of Algiers, and a big step towards the Middle East that you hear about on the news. There was an uneasiness to the whole thing, and I wasn't sure if it all in my head, or I was actually picking up on something... well, I'm not gonna spoil the ending for you.
Here are some photos I snapped as I walked around the medina, all by my lonesome....
About 45 minutes into my walk, who should I bump into, but my dearest mother. I almost didn't recognize her though, because she was walking with her head down, her hood up, and the strings on that hood cinched up tight.
Apparently she had been receiving a lot more harassment than I had been, and I'm sure that every single one of you already knows the reason why.
Because she's a woman!
And not just any woman—a white woman... walking alone... through a Muslim country.
She was on her way back to the hotel, but I told her that she should just walk with me. I'd probably be enough deterrence to have her covered. About 60 seconds later a man walked up and began speaking to us. We spoke back to him, and before we knew it, what had started as a "just talking" (his words) was him tell us to follow him somewhere. I told him straight out that there was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. I wasn't about to pay him anything. But of course, like any good manipulator, he talked about how he worked at the local mosque, how he just wanted to show us something, how we should want to see what he had to show us, blah blah blah—he walked along beside us for a LONG time. Eventually though, my mother looked at me like she had in the taxi, and I knew the time had come to redeem myself for not saving her from having to tip the Syrian man. I looked the guy straight in the eye and told him to go away and leave us alone. Sometimes you have to be rude. And then I resumed my policy of completely ignoring everybody who tried to speak to me.
We walked around the medina until the sun was beginning to set and the businesses were beginning to close. Meanwhile, an uneasy wind was blowing, moving the clouds that hung over the city faster and faster. Here are a few more (vertical) photos that I took during this time. Pretty, right?
It was starting to rain, so we stopped into the best looking restaurant we could find. It was smokey as hell, and the speakers were blasting the live recording of an Adele concert. However, soon after we ordered, the recording stopped, and a high pitched buzzing noise began echoing through the speakers and NOBODY could figure out how to make it stop. This noise was painful. I was getting angry. I was about to go over to the sound board and fix it myself, but then the manager came down and made it stop.
They then proceeded to serve me one of the top 5 worst meals that's ever been put in front of me at a restaurant. Yuck.
At the end of our time in Tunis, we had a 4:00am flight out of the country. This required us to wake up at 1:30am. Groggy and weary, we loaded into a taxi in front of our hotel. From there, the driver took us about a block before lurching to a screeching halt one street over from where we had started. He then rolled down his window and yelled to somebody that we could not see. A man dressed in traditional bedouin clothing appeared from the darkness and came over to the window of the car. Our driver reached down into a mystery compartment on his left side and produced a large, un-covered glass, filled to the brim with some sort of brown liquid. He handed it over to the bedouin man, and they exchanged a pleasant farewell. This interaction remains very mysterious to me, but with that, we were off. He was blasting Arabian techno and driving at 90 mph all the way to the airport. In the back seat, we just hung on for dear life.
Once we got to the airport, we quickly found out that no cash exchange was going to change our money back to Euros unless we had some sort of official document. So we were stuck with a worthless wad of Tunisian cash. "Oh well" we thought, "we can use this money to buy a really big breakfast in the terminal." Well, when we got into the terminal, the restaurants also refused to take our money. Apparently they only take Euros.
"Oh okay! It makes total sense that I can't use Tunisian money in f**king Tunisia!" I said loudly as I stormed away. I was so done. We found a sad looking member of the janitorial staff, and gave them all the money we had left. It was going to be worthless as soon as we got on the plane. We had had to go through security twice at this point, but we still had to do it one more time before boarding our plane. That's a grand total of 3 times through security.
And then we were off.
I was SO glad to be done with Tunisia. It was just not a nice place to be. I am a big believer in the idea that cities are living, breathing organisms with personalities and traits that transcend the people that are living in them. Algiers was incredible, but Tunis was a bad time. And beyond all of the shitty human interaction that happened here, the energy also just felt tense. It felt unfriendly and hostile.
The next day, from a balcony overlooking the Maltese Riviera, I was reflecting on all of this. I took a sip of my coffee and pulled my phone out of my pocket. I went to check out the news, as I often do, and—wait, what the hell...
- Nearly 800 Arrested In Economic Protests In Tunisia (New York Times)
- Tunisia Protests: More Than 770 Arrested After Days Of Unrest (CNN)
- Who Is Protesting In Tunisia And Why? (The Guardian)
- 2018 Tunisian Protests (Wikipedia)
- Tunisia Protests: Hundreds Arrested (BBC)
- Tunisian Police Clash With Protesters In Capital As Unrest Continues (Reuters)
- Tunisian Army On The Streets After Days Of Major Protests Against Austerity (The Telegraph)
- More Protests Expected In Tunisia After Mass Arrests (Al Jazeera)
Apparently, just hours after our plane had taken off, the entire country had erupted into violent protests that carried on for days. Police officers were killed, hundreds were arrested, and the military was soon patrolling the streets to keep the peace. And this had all happened, quite literally, right next to our hotel.
This was almost a much more interesting trip.
Now I'm wondering if the tension I was sensing in Tunis wasn't just in my head. A lot of the people out on those streets had to have known what was about to happen. Now I felt like I was connecting some of the dots.
Anyway, I might have had a bad experience here, but my stay wasn't very long. Honestly, I really don't feel like I can pass any real judgements on Tunis or Tunisia. I'm open to coming back... but it's definitely not high on my list.
Next stop, Malta.