Our days of clear skies and sunny 75 degree plus weather are over. It is now heavily overcast, rainy and cold. This is a sign.
The morning began with introductions to Ted and then off to Kelsey's favorite café to enjoy honey, sugar and chocolate crepes (Chocolate wins again!), strong coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. We then head to the local train to introduce Ted to this mode of local transportation. He may be getting an apartment along this rail line and this will be both fun and educational. First stop – La Goulette. Kelsey really wanted us to enjoy this sleepy little town and took us immediately to a café at the junction where a canal meets the bay. Very relaxing, hot coffee, locals abound, must be time for some Sheesha!
Next stop, back to Sidi Bou Said. We loved it the first time, but cut our visit short due to the setting sun. Let’s go see what we missed and show Ted the town of white, blue and green.
Kelsey had arranged to meet with some folks for late afternoon tea that influenced and helped her during her stay in Tunisia. They drove to pick us up in Sidi Bou Said and took us to their favorite café in La Marsa (I think). With Kelsey sitting on her Mom’s lap, we manage to cram us all into the subcompact. Very considerately, they drive us back to Tunis and recommend a restaurant. We can’t find it, but luck onto a fabulous spot where we order the largest fresh fish they have. An absolutely fantastic last meal in Tunisia.
The next morning, after confirming the desk clerk spoke English; I pay for the room and advise him that we are not checking out of the room yet. Our daughter is going with us to the airport to see us off. Her belongings are still in the room; she will return and be checked out before the checkout time of noon. Understood? Kelsey confirms his understanding in Arabic. Of course they don’t take credit cards, so I must go find an ATM to get the cash to pay the bill. How many hours did we stay here he asks? (just kidding – kind of).
A tearful farewell at the airport and we are off to Paris and Kelsey is back to the hotel where she finds her room empty - all her belongings are gone. I can only imagine the frantic search that happened after that. Long story-short, she finds the maids who own up to the fact that they took her stuff. They lead her to another room where there are piles of her belongings which have been divvied up among the staff for them to take home later. She gathers her stuff, back to the room to re-pack it all. A man who apparently knows the maids enters her room indicating a desire to kiss her and asking why she is staying in the hotel alone. Kelsey (I am certain) nicely gets him out explaining her parents just left and that she can disable him in a way that will make him sing soprano for the rest of his life. He returns – again entering the room - seeking a promise of a future rendezvous later in the day. Yea right.
I am just very glad I was not there for all this. I would probably be in a Tunisian prison writing this blog on toilet paper. But wait, evidently toilet paper, napkins and paper towels are a precious commodity in Tunisia. You rarely found any of these items – especially when they were most needed.
Friends have asked me what I thought of Tunisia. Should they go? I feel compelled to record my less than positive point of view on this topic.
In the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico region there are many islands and coastal destinations frequented by tourists. At these locations, tourists are met at the airport and escorted back to their vacation compounds. These compounds are surrounded by walls, fences and gates and security staff ensure that no locals enter the pristine beaches. Tours are arranged to and from any local sites such as ancient temples, scuba diving, natural wonders, etc. These tourists rarely interact with the indignant natives of the destination. Outside the walls of these destinations is poverty so great it leads many native people to be desperate. These vacation destinations may place the tourists in physical and moral jeopardy if they are unaccompanied from their compound. Moral jeopardy occurs when they compare their relative vast wealth to the poverty that surrounds them. For these reasons, it is anticipated by most that tourists really do not want to interact with the "real" people of these destination.
I have begun to think of Tunisia in this way. The Mediterranean coastline of Tunisia is jam packed with resorts – many of them “all inclusive”. Since we were not in Tunisia during the tourist season, I could not fully witness or appreciate that reality. However, my guess is that the vast majority of tourists to Tunisia see the country through the lens of staying at one of these “high end” resorts, basking in the sun and experiencing Tunisia from within the virtual walls of their compound and only venturing out on the escorted tours to specific sites such as El Jem.
I am informed that Tunisia has the largest middle class population of any Arab country. I am informed that Tunisia has rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation. I am informed that Tunisia taught the Romans how to grow grapes and make wine. I am informed that in the Arab culture there is a unique way of saying “No”. It will take months to learn to recognize the Arab “no”.
At the edge of the cities and in the countryside, real poverty is clearly evident. In the center of the cities, a different kind of poverty appears to me to be present. This is a poverty of morals. Morality is such a judgmental thing and is culturally specific. However, I can only relate to the culture I know. Where I come from, it is just wrong to lie to a fellow human being, it is wrong to misrepresent the truth and to trick for your own gain, it is inappropriate to be aggressive towards others for the prize of a taxi fare. Where I come from, it is not a way of life to sit around in public for hours and disrespect women and men that accompany them. I am naive. I expected better from a country that is 98% Muslim and where the call to prayer sounds so many times per day. In Italy, I believe that 90% are Catholic but fewer than 30% “practice”. In Italy, I was treated with respect and surrounded by people who shared my code of morality.
If you do not speak very good French or Arabic, Tunisia is probably not going to be kind to you. If you come for the all inclusive resort and planned interpreted outings, I think you will love Tunisia. If you can be hosted by and live with a “real” family who will take care of you the way so many took care of my daughter, you may love Tunisia. If you are not attuned to the cultural differences, the joy of your Tunisian vacation will be greatly diminished. I am not so sure that Tunisians in general think highly of Americans. They do like our money.