Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5.26.09 Tunisia

This morning the boat pulled into La Goulette, Tunisia. This would be the only stop that I felt somewhat uncomfortable about. Melba and I had such a bad time in Egypt two years ago and I wondered what it would be like in a different part of North Africa. Well – it was nothing short of fantastic. The vendors were a little bit pushy (and I mean just a little bit), but other than that we had an excellent time. We chose to not explore this city on our own – rather, we paid to be part of an excursion with a tour bus and guide. It was money well spent. This particular tour was 8 hours long and it went to all of the spots that Melba’s Lonely Planet Guide said we should see. While we were driving around I had the chance to look into a couple of public buses, and, well, let’s just say that it confirmed to us that this was not a city we would want to see on our own.

Tunisia is the only country on our stop where we have to go through customs while getting off the boat – that means we have to carry our passports with us. I was nervous knowing that if we got robbed it would mean our passports are gone. But we felt safe the whole time and didn’t have to worry about that.

There is all sorts of history in Tunisia – I had no idea. Most history dates back over 3,000 years to the Phoenicians. (Yes, the name made us miss our dog…) While this country is mostly Muslim and therefore has a predominately ‘Middle-Eastern’ look to it, Tunisia certainly has an identity of its own. It is a desert – but has lots of cactus and flowers everywhere.

Our first stop was in the city of Carthage. Our tour guide said that the houses in Carthage (very big and beautiful) are for the wealthiest people in Tunisia – his words were, “This is the Beverly Hills of Tunisia.” We went to visit some Roman ruins that were across the street from this neighborhood. Our guide explained that the ruins spread to the areas underneath the huge houses but they couldn’t be excavated because it would be too hard to convince all of the people living there to move. Funny how politics work. I was taking lots of pictures – the tour guide started referring to me as ‘The Paparazzi’ because I was constantly snapping my camera.

We drove 30 minutes through the city and went to El Bardo Museum – it used to be a palace and now houses the largest collection of mosaics in the world. I was amazed at the artwork here – it was absolutely beautiful. Some of the pieces used tile so small I could’ve fit about 10-15 pieces on my thumbnail. From a distance, they looked like paintings because of the detail.

This is Melba now. Sammie doesn’t feel well so he’s off to bed…
We loved the mosaics at the El Bardo Museum. Apparently, Tunisia was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. And since they supplied so much bread, olives, figs and other food to Rome, they got very rich. So, they decorated their houses with mosaics to show off how rich they were. Most of the mosaics we saw were pre-Christian, so they depicted a lot of the gods and goddesses—especially Neptune because he’s the god of the sea and they were very dependent on ocean trade.

After the museum, we went to some shops in the old city. It reminded me almost exactly of Jerusalem’s old city, except a bit more mellow. The line here is “Come in please, just for a look.” Whereas in Jerusalem, the line was, “Special price for you.” But we still heard lots of “Hello, please” and other familiar phrases. In particular, I noticed the smell – spices, leather, some b.o. It brings back a lot of memories.

(Warning! Boring history paragraph) Our tour guide took us to a rooftop to look out over the old part of the city. He pointed out four different types of mosques. The first was an Arab mosque and the second was Turkish. Then he pointed out a Moorish mosque and a Berber. It took me a while to get all of these groups straight in my head, but as far as I understand, this is how it goes… Berbers are the native people here, the Africans. They also inhabit Algeria and Morocco. (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia make up North Africa). Sometime before the Romans, the Phoenicians from Lebanon came over and established Carthage. The Romans followed some centuries later, during the time of Julius Caesar, and destroyed the old Carthage then built a new one. Roman culture pretty much hung on until the Arabs swept through in the rapid expansion of the Muslim Empire. Their ultimate goal was to get to Spain, but they set up shop in Northern Africa along the way. They also gathered locals and took them along to Spain—Berbers, Carthaginians/Romans, etc. When the Muslims were expelled from Spain, the descendents of those natives came back to Tunisia, but were called Moors because they weren’t Arab nor Spanish, but also not really Tunisian either. Finally, the Ottoman Turks came through and ruled until the 19th century when the French came in and took over. The poor Tunisians finally gained independence in 1956 and, ever since, Tunisia has been a fairly stable Arab-Muslim country with a relatively good economy, fairly low terrorism, and high religious tolerance. Phew! Sorry about all that. I actually wanted to write it down so I would remember it.

After coming down from the rooftop, we spent some time in a rug shop. The rugs were breathtaking! Many of them resembled the beautiful rugs we’ve seen in Israel and Egypt. But the rugs made by the Berbers were quite different. They almost looked South American or Native American. We weren’t really in a position to buy a rug—not only do we not really have an income right now, but we don’t know what our home in Austin will look like or what kind of rug we would need—so we didn’t buy, but I look forward to the day when we have a Tunisian rug in our home!

Lunch took place at a buffet filled with delicious Mediterranean-type food. I was sitting next to two women—one an artist who taught art in high school for about 30 years and is now a docent at an art museum, and the other a retired journalist who is now writing a book. We had lots to talk about! We’ve really had fun meeting different people from the cruise. Most people are older—enjoying their retirement. Many here are celebrating an event—a wedding anniversary, or a graduation. Another family on our tour bus today is celebrating the father retiring from the Marines. He’s here with his wife, their 4-year-old daughter, and both sets of grandparents. It’s fun to hear about different people’s situations and what brings them to Noordam. (The name of our ship.)

After lunch we went to a quiet hillside village where all of the houses are painted white with blue shutters. It overlooks the Mediterranean and has a constant cool breeze to mitigate the hot African temperatures. We walked up a busy street, past lots of shopkeepers, and were rewarded at the top of the hill with beautiful views of the Med.

We had two quick stops on the way back to the ship, to see some more Roman ruins, and then stumbled on to the boat exhausted but happy. We’re both pretty tired tonight. Sammie’s sick to his stomach and I’ve picked up a nice cold. I think we’re also both feeling the anxiety again of the move ahead of us. We had hoped to hear news during our cruise that our house has sold, but it hasn’t. In fact, I don’t think anyone’s been to look at it since we’ve been gone. They’ll probably all want to come when we’re home, trying to pack up and move. Sigh. That’s how it goes. We’re going to take it easy the next two days. The last two ports are Sicily and Naples. We plan to have easy days and save up our energy for Rome! Oh yeah, and the move…

So… anyone wanna buy a townhouse in State College? Special price for you! Come in, just for a look. Hello? Hello please.


Spenceanna said...

FUNKWEILERS! We are LOVING reading your posts. Thanks so much for keeping us all updated! WE can't wait to see the pictures eventually...
love you guys!

Sara Corinne said...

I'm into the history stuff. So why do Tunisians speak french? I was thinking French and Arabic are the main languages in Tunisia.