Well-off place then and now?

Wealth, both ancient and modern – that’s the impression I got from Carthage. There is a nice little tram that runs from a station about a ½ hour walk from the medina.

“Tunis marine” is also where my bus arrived from the airport, it has a shared taxi station and a metro station. The tram takes about a ½ hour to Carthage, and along the way I got a sense of the industrial port of Tunis. The tram is modest and the stations in need of some repair; not anymore than stations all over the world, but I reacted to the contrast with the neighborhood.

Because the contemporary residential district seems to indicate folks here are as well off if not more so than in the area along the beach north of Sousse.

I passed pickup at a school with the parents waiting outside in their cars, looking a lot like pickup at a small suburban school in the States. Nearby was this tennis club.

In the old days this was also a nice place to live. The Punic residents had airy houses up the hill.

Then when the Romans’ destroyed and rebuilt it, they constructed a huge public bath right on the beach.

Even though now one can only see the underground parts, a sign overlooking the site really helps.

More evidence of this being a spot those with means are drawn to: from the Antonine baths you can see the (a?) Presidential residence. (It is the series of white constructions on the hill.)

The whole area could not be more beautiful at this time of year, cool and windy but not cold and with the Mediterranean air.

Sousse – more local and less touristy than I’d been warned

The Sousse shared taxi station is on the edge of town, my apartment also seemed to be out of town in a different direction, and I wasn’t sure what local shared taxi would get me there. So I splurged on a private taxi! The apartment was brand new construction and a block from the beach. It was fun to see people walking on the beach and surf fishing. Also interesting was the texted warning from my host – drinking alcohol, being “bare”, and kissing were allowed in the Porte El Kantaoui area to the north, but not in the neighborhood. Nowhere else has anyone bothered to caution me about this – perhaps evidence of the larger and less sensitive tourist presence in Sousse at times.

That said I really like Sousse, at least in March. The “liberal” area my host was referring to was built in the 70s especially as a destination for tourists.

There are shops, restaurants (that serve alcohol, as noted) and a a small children’s amusement park around the harbor. It was full of people…all of them Tunisian families or couples out for a nice evening! It was a very positive atmosphere – no carousing that I could see.

The next day I headed to the Sousse medina. Logistical note – turns out you can flag down a local shared taxi really fast on the north-south road, they take you to “Hammam Sousse”, a commercial district one road inland and somewhat to the south, and there you switch to another shared taxi to Sousse medina. On the way we went through “Place Lublijana” – I wonder what the story is behind that! In any case, the Sousse old town is gorgeous, right on the sea, with the highlight being climbing the Ribat tower.

Built to protect against marauding Christians (hah – each were the others marauders) the Ribat is an unadorned fortress but the location and history is evocative. From the top you can see the active working port of today.

Walking around the walls of the city was also beautiful.

Alas the kasbah, which is now the archeological museum, is closed on Mondays.

There are some strongish attempts in the medina to “guide” but there were not very many tourists there at all and it is clearly an operational local souk and neighborhood.

And just outside the walls was this inspirational mural – two sci-fi Tunisians telling you, “You are bigger than you think you are!”

An amazing coliseum and Roman houses

Walking to the shared taxi stand in Kairouan I met this guy, though his owner wasn’t too happy about my taking his picture.

My shared taxi left immediately after I arrived and I think it wasn’t a coincidence – another was leaving as I bought my ticket. So at least Sunday morning at 8:45 am this is a very frequent run.

Something I’ve seen on several shared taxis – they stop for gas soon after leaving. You’d think efficiency would have them do that when there aren’t eight passengers waiting – but perhaps they need to wait until they’ve collected the money, or perhaps they don’t want to lose their own time of going out and filling up empty. I wondered if a gas station could do good business locating at the louage station, and what do you know – there was one at the Sousse station! The trip was 1h15, including a gas stop and road construction (they seem to be improving the Kairouan-Sousse road). The Sousse louage station is massive and as always drivers are happy to get you to the right place. Both at Kairouan and in Sousse I bought a ticket from a ticket seller and the prices were posted. I was #7 of 8 in my louage, and then we waited for about 15 minutes for our last rider. On the road from Sousse to El Jem at 10:15 am. When we turned onto the road south toward Sfax we were on a different quality road than I think I’ve been on. A1 appears to be limited access highway with a speed limit of 110 kph. (Not that the driver would have  known – i was sitting in the front seat and could see his speedometer wasn’t working!) Noted along the way – a taxi with a “dolphin-safe” sticker on it (?!) you can’t see it, but I promise it was there!

We arrived in El Jem at 11:15am and it was a 15 minute walk to the amphitheater (you can see it from everywhere!)

The amphitheater is huge – third largest in the Roman world, last massive undertaking in the Roman West (200s CE).

Some cool history – basically the area was dry and poor until irrigation made olive oil a booming business. The town was so rich that later Roman emperors overtaxed it and caused a successful revolt.

A walk through the town takes you to the museum. I thought this could be a bit of a scam even though reviews of the museum were positive. No scam – the museum is totally great and is located where it is because that’s where they found most of the wealthy Roman houses. There are fabulous mosaics, (here I am bonding with a mosaic of the “genius of the year” – really!)

Several of my other favorites included the detail of Silenus riding on a camel

and this poor creature being torn apart by lions.

The largest house in Roman Africa was discovered in another part of town and reconstructed here. There are also ruins of several other houses in situ – make sure to keep going through the rooms and out into the back.

I thought I’d try something new by taking the train back to Sousse, and the station was beautiful.

But it was going to be more than an hour, so I headed back to the shared taxi station. I just missed one but the next filled up in fifteen minutes.

Tozeur, gateway to the desert

(Note – this was the day before Kairouan). I arrived in Tozeur far earlier than I expected to, because the only shared taxi leaving from my previous city departed at 4 AM! Upon arriving, I headed right out to the Medina. It is completely residential, and therefore silent. After the various old cities I have been in, I definitely did not expect that. This Medina is remarkable for it brickwork. The designs that people have made on their walls with these brownish bricks are gorgeous, and in my experience unique. I ended up in a small private house museum that really enriched my understanding of both the town and the Berber culture. (It wasn’t the Dar Cherait, which is much bigger. This family has collected Berber artifacts,, and the man who guided me through was a terrific storyteller. From how they made their tents rain resistant to all the different ways to use a camel (skin, hair, milk, stomach, meat, etc.) he made it come alive.

From the ramparts of the house museum

He also served some delicious tea. This was all for five dinar. Granted he also sells rugs and his wife’s poetry, but it was a very soft sell. It was no problem when I turned him down. Plus I got to dress up like a Berber!

Let’s put the tall geeky guy in traditional dress!

Then I started to plan my next day. I had hoped to visit all of the desert sites on a one-way trip to the east, but it seemed that any I could set up at the last minute were day trips that returned to Tozeur. Also, as far as I can tell, you can’t do the cool nature and/or desert culture (or Star Wars locations) by public transportation. For better or for worse, my Airbnb here turned out to be a small hotel. So with the help of the hotel desk, I plugged into the tourist scene. An English speaking guy with a cowboy hat showed up. He arranged what I vaguely thought was going to be a full day trip, what my Taiwanese companion with whom he connected me thought was going to be a five hour trip, and which turned out to be a three hour trip. This is clearly a part of my visit to Tunisia I should have set up more in advance. That said, the three hours were amazing. We saw two gorgeous oases, one where a spring comes out of the foot of a small mountain, and another with a waterfall.

Yes, in the Tunisian desert, a waterfall. The most fun, however was driving incredibly quickly over the salt flats and sand, and then arriving at the set of one of the Star Wars movies. I am so, so glad I did not miss that. The driving doesn’t look so fast, but believe me it is. Also note that he is on his cell phone at the same time! In the second video you can see us rising over a dune to see the Star Wars set for the first time.

I’d wish I’d gotten to the troglodyte buildings in another part of the dessert that were real people’s homes,, but the set was very cool too!

When we got back at noon came one of the logistics moves of which I am most proud. There was not a lot left to do in Tozeur, so I ran across the street to the bus station. The next bus, and the only one until late that evening, was leaving in 15 minutes! I raced back to my hotel, pack my bags, checked out, and jumped on the bus. I then did some Airbnb work to set back my dates at my next town. The five hour bus ride was perfectly comfortable.

From Tozeur to Kairouan. At one point someone passed bread around and most of us had a bite.

Kairouan, fourth holiest city in Islam

I arrived in Kairouan by bus about 6 pm. My host Chema had sent me pictures of the route from the secondary street down the alley to her door, but I also wanted to warn her I was coming so when I phoned she came out to get me. Her house is wonderful – it has been in her family for several generations and she restored it in the early 2000s. She lives part of the time in Kairouan and part in Hammamet, where her daughter lives and where she works in tourism. She lived in Germany for some years and works primarily in German, though her French is also better than mine and is the language in which we communicated. She is fiercely proud of Kairouan, and feels it is the real Tunisia. “In Hammamet I am in Europe; in Kairouan I am in Tunisia.”

That evening I went out for a walk and got my first view of one of the extremely numerous sacred sites. The mosque of the barber is the resting place of a companion out the Prophet who used to carry around three whiskers from the Prophet’s  beard. Next to this holy site is a key pilgrimage site for the children of the city, “kids town.“ It was happening, and looked like a lot of fun.

The next morning Chema made a delicious breakfast, including a hot cereal made with grains, and homemade jams. I also appreciated her various pointers on places to go. I began with a wander through the medina, which as I had read is gorgeous, lively, and very genuine. I ended up going down a small covered alley with shoe stores and cobbler’s shops that seemed to go on forever – so fun.

Alas, my first destination mosque was closed on Saturdays, but fortunately the enterprising gentleman outside guided me into the beautifully restored governor’s palace from the 18th century. The fact that it also serves now as a carpet shop I am sure was no part of his motivation for encouraging me to enter and tour. (Indeed, the one downside of the medina for me were the multiple men happy to “help“ me if that help might land them a rug sale.) I was sure to hit the holy site/engineering marvel of the Middle Ages that places a camel in an upstairs room turning a pump that pumps a well for the town!

More wandering, and more mosques, including the very old and large central mosque.

As my host had advised me, I stopped into the Hotel Kasbah. It is another beautiful restored palace. I inquired about lunch, decided to not pay 12 times what I would for a schwarma sandwich from a street vendor, and instead enjoyed a tea and WiFi by the pool.

Then the walk to the outskirts of town to see the large pools of the Aglahbides turned out not to be essential (they are not particularly beautiful basins), but it did perhaps help me, like the camel room, to understand how important hydraulic engineering was to this town back in the day. Returning to the Barber’s mosque was however very much worth it, with a series of beautiful rooms, the tomb of the prophet’s companion, and an elegantly designed interior courtyard outside the prayer room.

On my way back to the medina, I passed a packed restaurant with some delicious looking fish being served. I asked how much, and the price was 12 dinars. Granted, that is four times one of my hit or miss pita pockets, but it turned out to be a delicious experience. Refueled, it was time to try to find the hammam. My first attempt took me seperately past two of my previous attempted guides/carpet sellers, whose friendliness was perhaps dampened knowing I wasn’t going to purchase goods or services. Eventually I turned from finding the bathhouse in the medina to the one just opposite the gate of the martyrs. I passed it several times looking for what my guidebook told me was called Hammam Tak Tak but was labeled with an old sign saying “Bain Maure Sabra”.

Inside it was total party. Other hammams I have been to have ranged from fairly peaceful (in Turkey) to me being the only one there (I’m not sure where.) This had little kids, teens talking loudly, older guys hanging out and chatting – in the three rooms there was hardly a place to sit! I bet the fact that it was Saturday afternoon had something to do with it. I had to ask a bunch of questions – primarily where I could get one those buckets everyone was using. I couldn’t remember the name for bucket in French, so pointing sufficed. It’s also hard for me to navigate a new, culturally challenging and slippery environment without my glasses. It turned out to be quite rejuvenating, though, and I was glad I had followed advice from the Guide Routard and brought my bathing suit and my shampoo.

Dinner was at Restaurant Nakcha . This is an interesting place because it feels fancy (through an archway, in a garden, tablecloths, etc.) but I got a full meal (plus hours of comfortable free WiFi use) for 18 dinars. The view of the garden and (once again) the Barber’s mosque is an added treat. And despite the tourist signals, it was mostly local families.

Romans and various means of transport

The Bardo museum is reputed to be one of the great museums of the world. Also, almost everyone I have met in Tunisia speaks basic French. Therefore, I was surprised when my taxi driver seemed confident of the idea of “Bardo” but not so much of the idea of “musée.” So I followed along on my GPS, and we did indeed go toward the Bardo until a certain point. When it became clear to me that he was not going to turn back toward the museum, I asked to be let out. He seemed happy, and it occurred to me that this was the neighborhood called Bardo. A short walk later, which took me past the Parliament adorned with orange trees and concertina wire, and I was at the museum.

My favorite pieces in the permanent exhibit were the marine life mosaics.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on the revolution of 2011, with many of the personal videos, emails, social media posts and other electronic records.

On the way to the shared taxi station, the metro was so jammed I couldn’t get on. I thought I might be there forever – but an empty one came right behind. Like much of the transport system in Tunisia, the metro isn’t fancy but it seems functional.

I found my shared taxi after asking every several blocks and then asking among the taxi drivers. Fortunately mine wasn’t the one with “Just God Be Help Me” written on it in English!

I wondered why my driver kept calling out something like “kreed” to get people to join our louage, when none of the towns I was told to ask for were called that. So I confirmed “Dougga” with him twice more. I think I solved the mystery later that day when my next taxi passed a town near El Kef called “Krieb”.

It took about 45 minutes for us to depart. Slight confusion when we got there – he was dropping me in the new town (“Dougga Nouvelle”) and I did not know where the taxis were for the archeological site (“Dougga ruine”). Fortunately before he left he connected me with one.

A word on costs. I’d seen 6 dinar quoted on the web from 2012. I don’t know if prices have risen or I was overcharged but I paid 9. Then as many have noted the short (but steeply uphill not worth walking) taxi to the site is 20 round trip,and you arrange time time your driver should return. I asked for two hours which worked well for me.

And up I went to the remarkable, World Heritage Site Roman ruins!

Hitting the road solo

The flight from Newark to Frankfurt was late, but thanks to the Lufthansa folks sweeping me and others with tight connections under the airport by minibus, I still made my connection to Tunis. Then, a few of the airport tests. First, could I get a Sim card? No; my phone is locked, and they do not rent mobile hotspots. So I signed up for AT&T’s “passport” scheme, and turned off my cellular data. I got money out of the ATM no problem. Then, to find the #635 bus to the center of town. It turns out you need to go across all the parking lots and across a busy multi lane road with no crosswalk. Then you come to an unmarked standard issue bus shelter. I asked five police on the way. We then waited for longer than a half an hour for the bus, during which time I made friends with a man who proposed sharing a taxi. (He gave up his shade under a palm tree to come join me in mine.) We were about to hail the cab (for about 4 dinars each – much less than 20 dinars I would have paid myself from the airport) when the bus finally came. The bus cost Gamel ½ a dinar – I say Gamel, because since I only had big bills he spotted me the fare. We had a great talk all the way (in French!), ranging from the techniques pickpockets use to his work as an engineer.

I made several attempts to call my bed and breakfast host, but I have not quite figured out the numbering system for Tunisian telephone prefixes yet. No worries, though; I did what I wanted to do anyway which was wander the Medina until I found the place.

It was locked, so I asked the bakery across the street, who sent a child to go and run and get someone else, who made a phone call, and then who knocked hard on the door. I was welcomed by my wonderful host Karima and her sister.

A glimpse of Danish society from a tourist

After a few days in Copenhagen, my observations echo those of many, many US folks before me. So many cyclists commuting, taking their kids places, just getting around. Three bus lines (at least) within eight minutes of our apartment in a neighborhood north of town. A river running through the middle of town that has been so cleaned up that now there are large public swimming areas in it. We were in a metro stop and saw some rainbows on the ground. Above us, we discovered prisms as part of an art installation. Margaret’s comment: “If you pay lots of taxes you get rainbows everywhere!” (We’re not indoctrinating her, I swear…)

 

 

Friendly alley in the Østerbro neighborhood of Copenhagen.

At the same time, not all is perfect in the socialist paradise. A law banning burquas and niqabs just came into effect (with the fig leaf that wearing facemasks and false beards is also disallowed). Lots of debate about this decision. Reading the papers, both sides speak to the concept of Danish values, with one saying that aggressive covering violates women’s rights, and the other speaking to freedom of religious expression.

I’ve also read online a little bit about the idea of poverty in Denmark. The government publishes the “ghetto“ list – neighborhoods targeted for special help and services. These tend to be dominated by older people with limited education or recent immigrants. I also read one person saying in a chat forum that the Danish healthcare system does not cover dentistry for adults, so you can sometimes see people (again elderly or immigrants) missing teeth.

But back to the benefits we saw and heard ourselves. The quality of the museums and of public building upkeep is impressive, with great signage and creative things for kids to do. A Danish family who hosted us for dinner spoke about their support for the public school system, free through university, and for the European Union. Overall, my first impression is one of a strong commitment to the general welfare and the common good.

Jobs Omanis do, part II

A few observations I have heard but can’t swear to:

  • In 1970 so few Omanis were educated that most teachers came from Egypt. Now almost all teachers are Omani.
  • Almost all restaurant workers are guest workers. But the owner would be Omani – only Omanis are allowed to own restaurants (is this true of all businesses, I wonder?)
  • Some jobs are restricted to Omanis – taxi driver and water tanker driver. Why? Because these are good jobs that don’t require education, just a drivers’ license.
  • All government jobs, police and military are only for Omanis.
  • Someone working in the fields is not Omani, but the owner of the farm is.
  • An old man carrying grass on his head to his flock in rural Oman is Omani (why, if the current point about Omanis not working in the fields is the case?)
  • For every 5 foreign workers hired, a business must hire an Omani.

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Most restaurant workers are from India; these guys were from Yemen

 

Presto Chango!

Recently we went to dinner at a hotel restaurant in Muscat. It was one of the higher end hotels, and the restaurant served wine, so I guess you could identify it as a cosmopolitan or liberal space. (As I understand it, few independent restaurants, and not even all hotel restaurants, are licensed, even in the capital.) The diners were a mix of Omanis, Europeans, and folks from other Gulf states (at least one man wore what I think of as a Saudi ghutra.)

Next to us sat a middle-aged Omani couple. He was wearing the traditional Omani cap and dishdasha. She was wearing a black abaya and head covering. After they ordered dinner, she removed her head covering, kissed her husband, and excused herself. She returned without her abaya, wearing a red tank top and jeans.

Both in Oman and in other countries, I have seen women and men in widely varying interpretations of modest dress. But I have not seen someone change their level of dress “in public”, if you will.

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Define this space: public? Western? liberal?