Monday, 15 May 2017

Long time overdue: Tunis to Sousse to Tunis by train.

Where am I? Or better: Where was I?

Right, Medina de Tunis right after I came up with the CRAZY plan to leave this sanctuary of relative safety from getting lost and to take a train across the country, heading straight South no less, towards the Heart of the African continent.
C'est FOU
Add to the above that Sousse was the site of a terrorist attack in 2015.  38 Western tourists were shot at the beach and the building of a sun tourist hotel.  Only after I appease my fear-organ with the statement "No Worries, I wouldn't be caught dead in one of those hotels" do I realize what I just thought.

And that neatly corresponds to that bomb attack in Indonesia last year. When I heard the first mention of it on CBC radio, I learned that something had exploded in a Starbucks.  An hour later, the CBC had become typically timid the Canadian way and only mentioned that the Jakarta bomb had exploded in 'a cafe'.  You call that 'news'?  You call that 'freedom' if for whatever reason you dropped the name only one hour later?  I call that SHAME !

I've checked out and I'm walking to the train station.

 Gorgeous buildings (French readers will start smiling ;-)

Gare de Tunis

Seeing the trains in a different country for the first time is always exciting.  Even if it's just a US train if you're from Canada or a French train if you live in Germany.  But seeing a Tunisian train for the first time for me is akin to laying eyes on the Vietnamese Reunification Express or the Cambodian Royal Express for the first time.

But I do think they wash their trains more often in Indochine ....
Not to create the impression that the Tunisian Railway only runs ancient relics, there is a newer car sitting on a parallel track:

My train on the other hand is pulled by a Diesel cargo locomotive

 Note the PERMANENTLY reclining seat in the very back.  1er Classe has seen better days ;-)

When the conductor announces with much regret that the air-conditioning in First Class does not work but that it does work in Second Class, most of my co-passengers leave.  I stay, because I didn't come to Northern Africa to be chilled! 

 For 1 dinar I buy from a guy walking through the train the MOTHER of all salty Pretzels (OK, salty sticks). 50 cents for a 2 days salt supply !

One of the other conductors soon improvises by opening all the little windows and slinging the broken window shades over the luggage rack.

Warning:  Tunisia is NOT quite THIS beige; The unwashed windows add to the brownish impression.

YES, there are grain fields in Africa

A quick not-unrelated aside:                                               
Everyone knows or has heard the story that babies are delivered by storks, right?   
While everyone knows the story, how many people have actually SEEN a stork?  (No, NOT actually delivering a baby; the bird alone suffices ;-)

I saw my last stork's nest a few years ago while cycling along a canal (I forget whether it was Germany, France, Holland, or Belgium). 

 So imagine my surprise when I finally realize what those strange contraptions on top of pretty much EVERY SECOND high-voltage tower along the train journey are. They are stork's nests:

And given the scarcity of tall trees in these parts that makes perfect sense !

I'm no expert but I'm guessing these are olive trees

We arrive at Sousse station 50 minutes behind schedule.  I have my route plotted on my GPS, but I could have just followed the crowds. As soon as I turn the first corner, I see what I expected to see:  The wall of the Medina.

I look for my hotel for about one hour.   20 minutes on my own with my GPS in my phone.  NOPE, NO hotel. The fact that most streets do NOT have their names posted does NOT help.  Then I start asking people. They are ALL VERY friendly and point me in VARIOUS directions.  Then at some point one of the asked people decides to trot along with me.  Shame on me: I am slightly wary. Where is he taking me?  I've read too many North-American news stories, LOL. Anyhoo he of course has no clue WHERE I want to go. I show him the address on my cell phone screen several times, he looks it interestedly , but after he brings me to a few places that SOUND the same but are SPELLED differently, I come to the realization that he CAN’T READ ! So he asks other people, who point us in VARIOUS directions.     So after a while this odd couple trots by people who have seen us before, LOL.  Then one of the people he asks has the bright idea:  WHY not call the phone number in the e-mail?

The B&B owner tells us to wait at a certain corner (I was at exactly that corner in the very beginning (Before asking anyone) by myself !) and B&B man arrives to the rescue in his car 5 minutes later.  We pretty much stood right in front of the property but there is no sign on the outside wall.

He opens the gate to the beautifully OLD house with an inner courtyard.  He shows me my room and I would have lost my socks if I was wearing any:

The attention to detail and the craftsmanship are AMAZING.

From the roof, I get to see the famous skyline of the Sousse Medina wall, the view that made me decide to come here in the first place.

More delays are encountered when I have to wait for the owner to drive away again to cut spare keys for the property. Seems I'm his VERY FIRST or Expedia guest.  Which means that I might be the VERY FIRST person to ever sleep in this bed.

A small walk around town is not too overwhelming, but I get so see a wedding or whatever this is:

There is no point going out for dinner; I eat the croissants and some baguette left over by the other guests (The TRULY first guests; THEY were picked up at the local airport, LOL) that the owner had offered me. 

I get up at 6 am after a GREAT sleep on the TRULY AMAZING mattress under the fluffy Duvet in my 1001-nights-with-Aladdin bed.
Breakfast is served at 8:30.  I could have had it earlier but I just told the man "Whenever your other guests are having theirs".  

nice bed, eh?

Breakfast is simple but yummy !  I ask how long it took the owner to finish the renovation of this old house with all the attention to detail.  Two Years.  He also tells confirms that I'm the VERY FIRST guest from

Time to go back to that little store around the corner where I bought a pack of Mars Gold cigarettes yesterday.  The price was 3.40 TND, which equals CAD$ 1.92.    I buy 11 more packs.  I won't be able to get cigarettes THIS CHEAP in any Duty Free store !  It takes me several attempts to clarify that I want ONCE = dix plus un paquets de cigarettes.  Reality check for my French, LOL.  (When I finally run out of these cigarettes in Istanbul, I notice with regret that MARS Gold has become my FAVOURITE cigarette brand.  Why regret?  They’re a bit hard to get where I live, LOL.  But my strange habits have paid off again.  

When buying cigarettes in a new-to-me country, the store clerks usually offer me Marlboro (Do I look American?  The answer is YES for a Laotian, LOL). But I always say NO and arm-wave-talk that I want to smoke what people (pointing at people) smoke in THIS country (pointing at the ground).  Granted, even I wouldn't understand what that strange foreigner is trying to say by pointing at things, but I always end up with at least one popular local cigarette brand and not only do they taste better than American cigarettes, they are also MUCH cheaper.  This works in a lot of places, but do NOT try this in Canada.   Canada was the first country in the world to add Fire-Retardants to the cigarettes and not only do they taste accordingly but they are also much more harmful (Sorry Canada, humans are not supposed to inhale fire retardant chemicals, LOL)

Let's take a stroll through the Medina up to the wall and the lighthouse.   

Tunisians must be a kind people.
Why do I think so?  Because this place looks like CAT HEAVEN

Almost like Side Bou Said, but NO tourists in sight.

I find a museum gate, but no gate through the actual Medina wall, .... I start walking back towards the hotel.

I have the general direction right and stop at a corner to use the GPS to verify the direction.

HEY CANADA ! I hear and when I look around I see yesterday’s unlucky guide waving at me.  He's in a different store today (I THINK, I can't be sure in this MAZE). I probably commit a cultural faux-pas by declining his two-time offer of coffee.  I end up buying a handmade clay fridge magnet from the limited store selection. I ask him "Combien?".   He wiggles out of giving me a straight answer.  I pay him 4 Dinar (CAD$ 2.20) and he says "That is A LOT !  I will give THIS (1 Dinar) to my boss and use THIS (3 Dinar) to have a drink."  
There is something to be LEARNED from these people, LOL.  I end up leaving with his telephone number which he insists I take to find him the next time or just in case I would like to get something Tunisian while I'm back in Canada.

When I get back to the hotel, a cleaning lady has already arrived.  She doesn't seem to speak French, as her friendly but rapid talking in Arabic suggests.  She wants to clean my room but I manage to convince her in French to clean elsewhere first, so she doesn't have to clean my room twice.  

Since I don't really need my room anymore, I pack my bag and move over to the 'lounge', so she doesn't have to wait for me.

The phony B&B owner (you can tell with some people ;-) does not show up as promised, so I start walking towards the train station.

I finally see some tourists along Rue de France.

Just after I get a text message informing me that Mother did something really really really stupid.

When I get to the train station, I buy a bottle of water and one of those flatbread-Pizza hybrids.  Combined Cost?  Less than 2 Dinars, i.e. less than CAD$ 1. 

At that time, I have NO CLUE what is INSIDE these things, but I quickly find out.

 Some kind of tomato sauce, onions, spices, and (this is probably what attracts the CAT) small bits of Tuna.

A very relaxed crowd waiting. 

The train gets to Tunis 40 minutes behind schedule.  
 On my way to the Royal Victoria (eat something there maybe?) I walk by the booze dispensary but shy away from entering the premises. 

 No servers show up on the terrace of the Royal Victoria (HOW Royal is that?), so I grab my bag again and storm-march through utterly unknown districts of Tunis to the St-Georges Hotel.   

Yes, I picked it partly for the price, partly for the name, and partly for it's relative proximity to the airport.

And it seems that I've finally found the no-frills REAL Tunisia. None of that NO-SMOKING in rooms.  Those places are only worried that their next US customers will complain and ruin their reputation.  This place survives on its own merit  There are ash-trays in my room AND on the restaurant tables here.  The price I'm paying for my room tonight?  Large room with real antique furniture and a huge private bathroom and small balcony?  CAD$ 46.   NO it doesn't have an Aladdin lamp and it doesn't look like straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights, but it's REAL and it is AFFORDABLE !  I'm finally back in GLUTEN country;-)

I'm STARVING.  Let's check out the hotel restaurant !

I see one other guest and he is drinking a BEER ! (let's hope it's not a baby beer, i.e. alcohol-free LOL).
But NO, they do serve alcohol, so I order some Rose. Accompanied by Seafood Spaghetti.  The pasta should fill that vast calorie hole in the centre of my being and the seafood hopefully is reasonably fresh. Oh Stop worrying, Kraut, this is a port city. And I'm sure they wouldn't let their chicken linger on a Safeway shelf for 2 weeks as is the habit in the '1st' world, LOL

For the appetizer:  Olives on the top left. Pickled celery? on the top right. Cucumber on the bottom left. And the HOT-right-from-hell tomato dip in the bottom right.  There is a reason why they have SPICE MARKETS in these part !I can't get enough of the dip, LOL.

10 seconds later, I know that I chose right. The appetizer is followed closely by a BOTTLE of Rose, LOL.

The Seafood Pasta arrives.  Imagine Hysterical Laughter !  CAD$ 9 for a HUGE plate of spaghetti, BRIMMING with mussels and squid and flavour. And I mean FLAVOUR !  I manage to eat all the mussels and squid, but half the pasta has to remain on the plate.  Those GIANT green peppers?  They taste SWEET in comparison to the kind-of-spicy tomato sauce.

I'm not even sure whether the tunes coming from the speaker of the hotel restaurant are Tunisian music or just another extended Muezzin call for prayer.

But I do seem to distinguish the words Allah Akhbar, so the latter is much more likely.  The strange thing is, I find the monotonic droning really relaxing!  Think Gregorian Chants !  Same idea.  Wow, those last 2 words put me in the blasphemers list of fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, and the fundamentally strange man in the White House.

But back to the topic of breakfast: coffee, banana yogurt, baguette, a hard-boiled egg, quince jam (Very popular around here).  Now for the strange thing: I google Quince Tunisia and what do I get?  Articles published in the American Chemical Society journal:  Antimicrobial activity of Tunisian Quince.   I'll be darned:  It's yummy AND good for me ;-)

almost 8:00 

At 8 I have to make a phone call.  Not an easy one.  Maybe the Muslim concept of Kismet will make this easier.  No need to torture myself about my decision because "It is written".  "But what about FREE WILL?" you shout?  Strange concept in Western Society really.  Everyone is SOOO PROUD that they live in a FREE society, but even a very simple idea like taking a bicycle and travelling for 2 weeks quickly exposes the big holes in the imagined freedom.

The phone call is done.   I've talked to mother's care-taker and she agrees that my thoughts about the benefit of me interrupting my trip tomorrow to see my mother tomorrow after a little incident were correct, namely that my presence would not only not necessarily be beneficial but might even be detrimental.

I was thinking that I should NOT be taking a taxi today. I'm determined to take public transit to the airport.  So in that line of thinking, I decide to find the Metro station that I will later use. The name of the Metro station?
Nelson Mandela. 
See, people that don’t live in North America don’t seem to have this problem of taking a stand.  None of this “ooh, but if I declare my like for this guy, what will happen when the government changes or Fat Trump won’t like it?” whimpering around here, it seems.

So I leave the relative safety of my hotel to wander off into the unknown streets of Tunis for a dry-run of the walk to the Nelson Mandela station this afternoon.

I come to a corner and I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the beauty of a street lined with trees with lilac-coloured flowers.  Can lilac bushes grow into GIANT trees?  Denise, what say you?  The strange thing is: I have SEEN these trees BEFORE.  And my reaction to them was EXACTLY the same.  I even remember where it was:  A public transit bus-to-tram exchange hub in a bad part of Los Angeles in April of 201
But the sight in Los Angeles didn’t even come close to the breathtaking beauty of that strange purple extending as far as the eye can see this street in Tunis.

Denise!  Are these Lilac flowers?

The tram just arrived.  It’s packed.  There is even one guy riding on the coupler at the end of the train.  At first I don't understand why he is grinning so widely.  Everyone on the outside insists of getting into the train.
This is the tram I'm supposed to take this afternoon.

What a relief from the Vancouver street-naming system: Either it’s some British Hammock or some other God-forsaken place in Canada.  Here it’s a name that makes you dream of traveling (or WW III in this case).

It’s been 5 minutes since I’ve taken the picture of the crowded Metro tram.  It’s STILL there, with people STILL trying to SQEEZE the people preventing the doors from closing out of the way to get on themselves.   Now I UNDERSTAND why the guy riding on the coupler at the end of the train was smiling so hard, LOL.

I'm back in the hotel and my shirt is wet.  It's WARM outside.  Now THIS is the weather I'd expect in Africa, LOL.

A bit of more Google-Mapping and I realize that I should take a taxi to the airport.   NO, it's NOT the overloaded Metro train I just witnessed. I can deal with that.  But the L'Independence Metro station that looks really close to the airport, so close indeed that I thought I could walk it?  The quick connection that I thought I could walk is a Highway.  Probably not the best idea to walk that. And when I ask Google Maps for walking directions from L'Independence station to the airport it shows me a convoluted route of 5.7 km length.  I don't think I'll be attempting THAT at HIGH NOON in AFRICA, lol.

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