Lunch (date?)…

November 18, 2010 Comments Off on Lunch (date?)…

After two weeks on the road it was time to take a breather and setup shop in Tunis for a while. Hotel Salambo would become our home and café (I can’t recall the name), our office. We needed a little time to regroup, research our next move, edit photos, update blogs, and get our wifi fix – you know, the important stuff. At the time of arriving, Egypt was still a strong contender, but other areas in Africa were calling to us too; it’s hard to make a decision with so many interesting options close by.

Within a few days we had settled into a routine. Get up, watch Al Jazeera while getting ready, laugh about the Tea Party clips they’d show (especially Karen Angle – that lady has half a brain), stroll into the office around 10am, and then break for lunch in the mid afternoon. We frequently dined at this tiny sandwich shop which was epic. For around $1.50 you get something that puts the likes of Subway to shame. They sprinkle fries on top, so it’s not exactly healthy, but delicious nonetheless. We’d return to the office for the afternoon, squeeze in a walk or two, and then our evenings usually consisted of wine, movies on my laptop, and a little shuteye when the mosquitos weren’t feasting.

One afternoon, while minding my own business, I was approached by two men while enjoying a cup of coffee. A few minutes into our conversation, I learned that they were both local journalists. Normally I would shoe them away, but I saw this as an educational opportunity; perhaps I could get away with asking questions, others might not. Being a young female American does have its advantages from time to time. They invited me to join them for a drink, but I thought lunch would be more appropriate, so we decided to meet the next day. I opted to play the student card and asked if I could interview them for a paper, to which they graciously agreed.

We met in the city center and took a short stroll to a nearby restaurant. At first, our conversation consisted of the usual questions: family, work, and travel. Once our meals had been ordered, I decided to get cracking. Unfortunately, they had the same thought too. Sadly, my questions were never answered. Instead, they wanted to discuss my relationship status, have me guess their ages, and share a plate of spaghetti, Lady & The Tramp style; I successfully dodged all three.

At one point, I asked the older man if he had a family (he looked to be around 50). The younger one, who acted as a translator due to his English skills, responded by saying, “yes, he has a wife and kids”. He was quickly interrupted and an argument ensued between the two in Arabic; talk about awkward. Once it was settled, I was told that he made a mistake. His friend was in fact single and without children – you’ve got to be kidding me.

Is all I could say was, “Check, please!?!”.

Playing Gladiator & The Not-So-Grand Mos-KAY

November 16, 2010 Comments Off on Playing Gladiator & The Not-So-Grand Mos-KAY

We spent the last few days making our way back, stopping along the east coast in Mahdia, and then heading inland to see El Jem and the city of Kairouan. El Jem is an ancient Roman coliseum smack dab in the middle of town; something we didn’t expect. We had assumed the location would be more remote and resemble an archeological site. Needless to say, we were a little disappointed. The site was surrounded by souvenir shops and littered with large tour groups vying for their Gladiator moment (I might be singing a different tune if Russell Crow had been on hand). Let’s just say it’s worth seeing if you’re passing through town, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way.

I was really looking forward to our next stop in Kairouan, because the grand mosque there is considered to be the fourth holiest site in all of Islam. As we rolled into town, we were struggling to navigate the chaotic streets when a man pulled alongside us on a motorbike yelling ‘Mosque’ (pronouncing it ‘Mos-KAY’), as if to ask if that’s where we were headed. Rich responded, ‘Yes, we want to go to the mosque’, and the gentleman motioned for us to follow him. Thinking it was a done deal, we proceeded, but he continued to yell ‘Mos-KAY?’ at least ten times. Rich kept replying, ‘Yes. Yes, we want to go to the mosque’. He just didn’t want to take yes for an answer.

In the end, our night and shining armor was actually touting for a shop in the medina, and wanted to make a quick buck by posing as a concerned citizen. His plan crumbled when two cops appeared, forcing him to pull a rather quick disappearing act. The cops were nice enough to point us in the right direction after warning us to keep our distance from him. I’m guessing our leader has regular run-ins with the law.

The grand mosque was anything but grand. I try not to set expectations, but after all I read about this site, I was expecting to see and feel something. What we found was nothing more than an old building, cracking at the seams, with weathered prayer mats strewn about. You would anticipate them to take pride in this structure, especially because it’s the oldest mosque in North Africa, and believed to house a well that’s connected to Mecca (Now, that’s probably just a myth, but still). A site like this should be appreciated, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t agree with principles of Islam – at all.

On our way out, Mr. Mos-KAY appeared out of the woodwork once more. He wasn’t about to let us leave without paying for his GPS service. He was less than pleased when we only handed him a few dinar, but in our eyes, it seemed fitting. Having our fill, we hoped in the car and headed for Tunis. On our way out of the medina, we inquired about the correct road to take, but the carpet salesman wanted nothing to do with our question; instead, he wanted to play twenty questions. We quickly put the car in reverse and Rich yelled something about being in a ‘terrible rush’. We literally laughed for days over that one. Who says that???

Hertz (Mission Impossible)

November 15, 2010 Comments Off on Hertz (Mission Impossible)

Since meeting up with Rich, I’ve been in a constant state of laughter. I wake up, look to my left and within seconds, I’m bursting at the seams. I don’t know how, or why, but it never fails. He says the most off-the-wall things and has an uncanny gift for matching songs with scenarios; I seriously wish I could crawl inside his head for a few minutes… I think.

Traveling with someone can be difficult, especially on a trip like this. Days can be long, personal space is often limited, and conditions aren’t always ideal. Luckily, we’re both easygoing and get along swimmingly. In my personal opinion, it’s almost impossible to be mad at someone who makes you laugh; I suppose he has that working in his favor if tension were to arise.

One of the most memorable events from our road trip was attempting to contact Hertz to extend our car rental contract. We rented our trusty steed from the Hertz office at Carthage airport in Tunis. We originally paid for 10 days upfront, but the nice lady working in the office, who spoke decent English, assured us we could extend the lease while on the road if need be. She provided us with a folder that listed the locations throughout the country, and suggested we visit or call the nearest office if we decide to do so. Seems easy enough, right?

Once in Tozeur, we were up against the clock. Our handy-dandy folder listed an office in the area, so we were in luck… or so we thought. The folder, as well as our LP map, listed the office on the main road heading towards the airport. After driving up and down the street multiple times (which is a challenge all on its own), as well as circling the entire city for good measure, we came to the conclusion that the office is no more.

We returned to our hotel and decided to call, but the number provided didn’t work – go figure. The gentleman working the front desk confirmed our conclusion, so we quickly reverted to Plan B: contact the Hertz office in Tunis where we rented it from.

We called the main number too many times to count, but it just rang off the hook, so we switched to the secondary number. The phone would ring, someone would answer in Arabic or French, we’d get transferred 3-5 times, and eventually they’d just hang up on us. This would happen over, and over, and over again. Most would have found this mildly frustrating, and to a certain extent it was, but I also found it rather amusing. With each attempt, Rich’s English became more childlike, as did his voice. Eventually he did away with complete sentences and just stuck to keywords.

After going round and round, we enlisted the help of someone who spoke the language, but as usual, history repeated itself. We were so puzzled by this, because the language barrier obviously wasn’t to blame; eventually we would learn that the number was for the actual airport, not the Hertz office inside of the airport. Why, oh why, would they do such a thing? No wonder they didn’t want to talk to us.

After two days, we were still at square one, and our time was running out. We contacted every office with little to no luck. There was an emergency number listed on the folder, but what classifies as an emergency? Car crash? Theft? Lease extension??? Maybe.

My explanation of the situation was met with little to no sympathy, but the operator took down my information and said she’d do her best to get in touch with someone. We played the waiting game for hours, but our patience was wearing thin. We were seriously considering rolling the dice and just keeping the car, because the operator said we’d only have to cover the additional days, but when I called again to confirm she said, “Well maybe you get arrested?”. WHAT!?! Arrested!?! Talk about one extreme to the other, lady.

Feeling slightly discouraged, we continued down the road, mulling over our lack of options when my phone rang. Someone from the office in Douz, who took our phone call and didn’t speak any English, contacted a friend who did. He spent at least an hour tracking down all of the necessary information and eventually put us in touch with someone from the original Hertz office; a miracle indeed. All of that for complete strangers… pretty amazing if you ask me.

Below is a little snippet of what we were dealing with. My camera was acting up, so the majority of the footage was lost – bummer! 

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid…

November 3, 2010 Comments Off on Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid…

When I think of what a trip to the Sahara should look like, my mind automatically conjures up images of rolling dunes, starry nights by campfire, and camels. That isn’t exactly what I received, though.

You know the old saying, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?” Well that applies to the desert oasis of Ksar Ghilane too.

Did we ride Arabian horses? Yes. Did we get caught in a sandstorm? Yes. Did we sleep in a tent? Yes. Did we get our starry night? Yes. Did we frolic in the dunes? Yes. Did we leave with our dignity intact? Barely.

The Little Punto That Could…

November 1, 2010 Comments Off on The Little Punto That Could…

Leaving Le Kef in the dust, we set out in search of Jugurtha’s Table: a flat-topped mountain west of Kasserine, close to the Algerian border. It was once used my Numidian king Jugurtha (hence the name), during his campaign against the Romans around 105 BC, and offers notable views of the countryside in all directions.

This fieldtrip would result in multiple stops by local officials (I don’t recall the exact number, but I think it was close to six), registering with the National Guard in the town of Kalaat el-Senan, getting held up by children requesting money, pens, and chocolate; only to receive Tic-Tacs, and then getting followed by the National Guard or local police in an unmarked car, as we made our way out of town. We’re not exactly sure why we were followed. Perhaps it was because we opted to forgo signing out after completing our jaunt up the table. It could also be due to our close proximity to the Algerian border. Supposedly there is a smuggling issue in the area, but I’m not exactly sure on the specifics. Either way, the reason remains a mystery.

With Jugurtha fading in the distance, we made the three hour drive south to Tozeur. We chose to setup shop at the well-appointed Residence el-Arich for a few days. The town itself is a maze of unorganized, overcrowded, and heavily littered streets. Once out of town, however, it’s a much different scene.

Our first full day was spent running around the desolate flats of Chott el-Jerid. This seasonal lake is completely dry most of the year, with a thick crust of sodium chloride coating the top. Scientists consider the area to be one of the most Mars-like places on Earth, and are analyzing it in preparations for future missions. The area is simply stunning; there’s no other way to describe it. I could have camped out for hours, especially since Rich was in model mode. He was a good sport. Jumps, handstands, silly poses; nothing was off limits. We even returned to watch the sunset.

I should mention that Tunisia is well known for being the prime shooting location for Star Wars films. This alone brings loads of tourists to the south. Everyone wants to live out their Luke Skywalker/Hans Solo/Obi-Wan Kenobi dreams in the desert. Since we were in the area, we said what the hell and joined a father and son duo (Team Holland) for a 4WD excursion, arranged by a friendly fellow manning the front desk at our hotel.

At the time of scheduling, we were told the price would be 30 dinar per person. We were also told not to mention our plans to the other staff members at the hotel. This seemed odd, but we went along with it, assuming we were getting some sort of discount. The following day, we were told the price had gone up to 35 dinar due to the driver. This time we were asked not to discuss our price with Team Holland (a request we would obviously ignore). It was apparent that someone was getting screwed; we just weren’t sure who.

The four of us piled into the Land Cruiser around 3pm. Our first stop would be Ong Jamel (Neck of the Camel) located 30km west of Nefta. It was a bumpy ride over dunes and across rickety roads to this remote formation. Apparently this location was Darth Maul’s lookout in The Phantom Menace. To me that means absolutely nothing. I liked the original films, but George Lucas really did a number on the franchise when he released the prequels; cinematic #@%! is what I like to call it. Yep, I used the S word; sorry Mom and Dad.

After staring at the camel’s neck for a bit, it was off to check out Mos Epsa, said to be the best preserved Star Wars set in all of Tunisia. The site was comprised of several domed huts and a few indiscernible objects. I could see how fanatics might get their jollies from running around a place like this. It has goldmine potential written all over it; it just needs someone with an imagination and deep pockets.

With the sun starting to descend, it was off to the dunes to watch the sunset. We were under the impression that our driver would actually take us to this spot, but oh no. That would make way too much sense. Instead, when we all declined to ride camels, he made the four of us walk the rest of the way. Now, it’s not the walking that bothered us. I actually enjoy a nice stroll from time to time. It’s the mere fact that we paid for a service, and didn’t receive it. His tip went right out the window.

The sunset was nice, but the most memorable part was watching the barrage of Japanese tourists. They paid a guy to walk back and forth with camels in tow, while they snapped photos at lightning speed. Now, I hate to generalize, but if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that the Japanese take tourism to a whole new level. They deserve their own category. Seriously.

The next day we paid a visit to the mountain towns of Tamerza and Mides to check out the ancient Berber villages. We had hoped to hike between the two, but soon realized that wasn’t an option, unless we wanted to fork over a few limbs. Instead we went for a short hike through the canyon below Mides, and enjoyed a nice picnic of Bananas and Almonds (aka miracle nuts).

That evening we decided to do Fiat a favor, and take our little Punto for a test drive. We’re pleased to report it’s fully capable of competing with our previous day’s Land Cruiser. It handled the desert roads (if you can even call them that) like a champ. We found the perfect dune, frolicked about, and enjoyed our $3.30 bottle of Tunisian wine, as the sun disappeared once more. It’s a rough life.

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Box of Sin, Mystery Meat, and Roman Ruins…

October 28, 2010 Comments Off on Box of Sin, Mystery Meat, and Roman Ruins…

After breakfast, it was time to hit the road again. We continued west to the city of Tabarka. Within minutes of arriving, we could tell that there wasn’t much to see or do, so our stay would be brief. Tunisia is an Islamic country, so alcohol can be hard to come by. Fortunately, we were in luck; the local Monoprix offered quite the selection, so we thought it best to stock up. Like two kids in a candy store, we filled our basket to the brim. Wine? Check. Vodka? Check. Gin? Check. Tonic? Check. Now, I know how this sounds. The truth is, we don’t drink that much. It’s just nice to know that we can enjoy the occasional glass of wine or cocktail if we so choose. It’s better to have the option, than not. At least that’s my philosophy.

With our “box of sin”, as Rich so aptly named it, tucked safely in the trunk, it was time to move on. Our next stop would be the small town of Ain Draham in the Kroumirie Mountains, where we would attempt to do some trekking. We decided to take a short detour along the way, stopping at a nice viewpoint, and then driving to the Algerian border for a quick looksee. It pays to have your own transportation.

As we strolled into Ain Draham, we were stopped by the local police; something we would experience multiple times over the next few days. These stops are pretty straightforward. They come to the window, and in a mix of French and broken English, ask where we’re from, if we speak the language, and then request to see our passports and vehicle registration. A quick glance, an exchange of smiles, and we’re on our way within minutes. I should probably give Rich some credit for perfecting the “I’m white, ignorant, and not worth your time” persona; it helps to ward off potential schemers looking for bribes. 

After checking into our hotel, we went to the Royal Riyana to inquire about trekking arrangements for the following morning (according to LP, you must hire a guide, because the trails are difficult to find). The gentleman at the front desk was confused, but advised us to return the next morning at 9am to speak with another employee. We were without set plans, but remained fairly optimistic.

The rain started to pour as we made our way back to the hotel, so we opted to stay in for the night. Much to our surprise, the room had satellite TV with a few English movie channels – Yay! Our evening consisted of watching a horrible Scott Baio movie (not my fault), Crash (which we actually discussed earlier in the day – strange), part of King Kong, and drowning in a sea of gin & tonics.

Feeling slightly sluggish the next morning, we packed up our Punto and headed to the Royal Riyana once more. Unfortunately, we walked away sans guide. Determined to hike, we attempted to make our way up Jebel Biri: the highest peak in the area, or so we read. Finding our way to the top proved impossible. We followed multiple footpaths only to end up in the bushes; at least we got some exercise.

Having worked up an appetite, we opted to grab lunch at a roadside stand on our way out of town. We received a plate full of fatty mystery meat, and some bread. Several days later we learned that our “mystery meat” was actually sheep. How did we figure it out? Why, the bloody carcasses lining the streets farther south, of course. Apparently sheep is very popular in these parts; we had consumed it in other dishes without even knowing it. Baaahhh!

Making good time, we visited the roman ruins of Bulla Regia, and marble quarries in Chemtou later that afternoon. Bulla Regia hosts some pretty impressive underground villa’s that are still in the process of being excavated. The town emerged in about 5th century BC, reaching its peak of prosperity in 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, later to be abandon during the Arab conquest. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth checking out. Chemtou on the other hand, didn’t exactly wow us. That’s not to say it should be passed up; I just think we were tired and our attention spans were dwindling by the second.

We eventually laid our heads to rest in the city of Le Kef due to its close proximity to Dougga: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, said to be the best preserved Roman city in all of Africa. The setting and site were fantastic. We hired a guide who happened to be an archeologist, providing tours between excavations; she was a wealth of knowledge and certainly worth the extra 20 dinar. Without her, the experience would have been good, but definitely not great (it helps to know what you’re looking at). We spent the afternoon roaming around the ancient city, going camera crazy. It was there that I learned how much Rich enjoys having his picture taken. There is a term we like to use back home, but I’m afraid my parents wouldn’t approve.

We ended the day by making a trip to Hammam Mellegue for a relaxing soak, Roman style. The baths, fed by hot springs, have remained virtually unchanged for the past 1800 years. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting, but still a worthwhile experience – scrub-a-dub-dub!

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All Signs Point North…

October 24, 2010 Comments Off on All Signs Point North…

With the car safely in our possession again, and our anxiety levels in check, it was time to put Rich’s driving skills to the test, and hit the road. While navigating the busy streets of Tunis in a 5-speed sounded mildly entertaining, I thought it best to let him take the wheel, and what a good idea that was.

To put it bluntly, people here just don’t give a (bleep) when it comes to traffic safety. Stop signs, traffic lights, and cross walks prove useless. People dodge in and out of traffic whenever, wherever – no joke. Don’t even get me started on sidewalks; why would you use one when you can walk in the middle of the street instead? Makes perfect sense, right? Riiight.

We managed to make it out of the city while only stalling the car a few times. Of course, I can’t take credit for the minor feat; hat’s off to Rich on that one. I would have surely doubled, maybe even tripled the number. Once on the freeway it was smooth sailing the rest of the way.

We arrived in the city of Bizerte later that afternoon. We drove around in search of a place to stay, and eventually decided on Hotel El-Fetah, thanks to the Lonely Planet recommendation. I can’t say I agree with their take on this place. It was definitely cheap and noisy (we forgot to ask for a room in the back), but the shared facilities were far from “spotless”, like they mentioned. Oh, and the shower… let’s just say we both opted to do without the next day. The offensive buildup and crusty towels didn’t exactly summon that fresh-and-clean feeling.

After settling into our hotel, we made our way down to the old port to take in the multicolored boats and cute kids trolling for fish. A few of them were kind enough to let me snap some photos and show off their bounty. I’m not sure why this is, but I take to foreign children much more than I do to those at home. Perhaps it has something to do with witnessing them in their playful state, enjoying the outdoors as they should be; instead of glued to the TV watching the likes of Hannah Montana and Dora The Explorer – I don’t know, just a thought.

After walking up the hill past the medina, we were greeted by an old man pointing to the Spanish Fort behind him. In broken English he requested a few dinar for the entrance fee, which we later learned was nonexistent. It’s possible (not probably) that he wasn’t trying to dupe us, and just wanted some change, but I can’t be certain due to the language barrier; I suppose the correct thing to do is give him the benefit of a doubt. It’s just that when you stand next to a gate and ask for money it certainly implies that a fee is due. Perhaps I should give it a whirl one of these days. After all, you know what they say: Work smarter, not harder. After shelling over the coin, he pointed out his barely breathing dog (still not sure why), and then disappeared.

The fort was boarded up, so there was nothing to gain from our visit, besides a semi-decent view from atop the amphitheater. We took a short break, and then decided to make our way across town to walk along the jetty. As we made our way down the sandy center, we came upon several large steel pipes strewn about; what ensued next will probably remain one of the most memorable moments from the entire trip. We clapped, hooted, hollered, and even sang into the pipes for what seemed like a while. The pipes amplified and echoed the sound which resulted in nonstop belly-aching laughter, especially on my part. It was the purest form of childlike happiness, and it didn’t cost a thing; proving it really is the simple things in life that are most enjoyable.

We arose bright and early (not by choice), with our sights set on our next stop: Cap Serrat; a small beach about an hour and a half away. We stopped at Ichkuel National Park for a quick hike, and then continued west. The drive was picturesque, with rolling hills cluttered by olive and eucalyptus trees; the sun shining brightly the entire time.

As usual, Rich was a good sport and put up with my game of twenty questions; I basically drilled away – a skill I’ve perfected. When we arrived at our destination, we checked into the only accommodations available in the area (it’s rather remote), and then headed to the beach. It’s a lovely area with tons of potential. It just needs a little TLC… and a dumpster.

(video of pipe playtime to come – experiencing connection issues)

Welcome To Tunisia…

October 22, 2010 Comments Off on Welcome To Tunisia…

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been gone for one month. In some respects time is flying, but in others, not so much; this is both good and bad, depending on how you look at it. Either way, the first month has been a positive one. I feel as though my journey is off to a good start and I look forward to whatever lies ahead. I’m finally learning to throw caution to the wind. To shake my pre-planned, overly organized, preemptive ways, and just live one day at a time; something I’ve struggled to do in the past.

I’m currently safe and sound in Tunis, Tunisia. I’ve been traveling around the country for the past two weeks with my friend Rich, who I mentioned in the previous post. We managed to loop around the country in 12 days; a pretty big accomplishment, if I may say so. There were many bumps along the way, but in the end, our Fiat Punto pulled through for us, making it a successful trip.

We lacked regular internet access while on the road and I neglected to take detailed notes. Recalling the events in their entirety will be a bit challenging, but I’ll do my best. Usually words fly right off my fingertips, but I’ve been struck with a horrible case of writers block – just my luck.

I arrived on the evening of the 7th. Rich was kind enough to meet me at the airport, so I wouldn’t have to deal with taxi driver’s devious ways. In the end, we still got taken advantage of. The cost for a cab ride from Carthage airport to the city center should cost approximately 5 dinar; something I didn’t know upon arriving. We agreed to use the meter, but our driver was increasing the amount along the way, assuming we wouldn’t notice. I was completely clueless to the situation and found the whole confrontation rather comical. I’m not exactly sure what the final amount was, but within a few minutes of reaching the city center, we were dropped off on a sidewalk still several blocks from our hotel, and a cop was involved – Welcome to Tunisia!

After a short night’s sleep we reconvened for breakfast, and then made our way to the Libyan embassy to inquire about getting visas. Currently, you are required to be part of an organized tour to obtain a tourist visa, but we thought we’d give it a shot. Unfortunately, we walked away empty handed. It turns out we can get a 3-day transit visa for crossing into Egypt, though. It’s not what we were hoping for, but something we’ll consider if we decide to head that direction eventually. What happened to, ask and you shall receive?

The rest of the afternoon was spent getting acquainted with the city, wandering around the old medina, and drinking multiple cups of coffee while listening to Rich recall stories from his past; something I’ve come to really enjoy.

Since our Libyan adventure was out, we moved onto plan B: a two week road trip around the country. We rented a car the next morning, which was surprisingly painless. A quick flash of our passports, a few hundred dinar, and we were on our way, grinning from ear to ear. Little did we know, within the next two hours we would get lost making our way back, end up on the side of the road unable to get our car into reverse, and then get it towed while checking out of our hotel – awesome.

Now, to our defense, there were no signs or markings that indicated it wasn’t an available spot. After a brief moment of panic, we walked across the street to an upscale hotel, and enlisted the help of a bellboy. He asked for our key, 30 dinar, and then told us to wait in the lobby. Twenty minutes later he returned with our car, no questions asked. It was almost too good to be true. The whole transaction was seamless which makes me think it’s a regular occurrence; a tourist trap perhaps. Either way, we had our car back, and that’s all that mattered.

Let the fun begin…

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