Wednesday, June 17, 2009

All Sahel that ends well

Last weekend we took our first group trip, to a central coastal region of Tunisia known as the Sahel. We first stopped in el-Jem, where we visited the ruins of a roman colosseum. Having seen the colosseum in Rome and another in the south of France, I wasn't particularly excited. However, this one beat the pants off of the other two--first for the lack of crowds, but also how much of the structure remains AND is fully available to the public. Without Western ropes and guards, we were free to scramble all over (and under--this was where Gladiator was filmed, so you could go through the gladiator/tiger chambers). Here's a picture of me and Drew doing just that. I also bought a necklace in el-Jem, which I apparently paid too much for--I need to get better at this bartering thing. (Good thing I'll actually be getting bartering "lessons" tomorrow).

Next we stopped in Mehda--a cute coastal town whose local boys were enjoying diving off little rocks en masse into the beautifully blue Mediterranean. Several of our guys stripped down to join them, much to the amusement of the boys, as did one girl (much to the rather creepy interest of the men on the shore and the older boys, who all began swimming after her...I opted to stay dry). Here are pictures of one of the boys as as well as just a shot of the cute town, which was bordered by a field full of white graves bearing black and green (holy color) Arabic inscriptions.

After that, it was down to the resort town of Monastir to spend the night at a 4 star hotel--thank you, State Department. The hotel bordered on a white sand beach with crystal blue water that stayed shallow for a long way from the shore. It was weird to be in a place so clearly geared towards tourists. Not only was there toilet paper, but there was NO hose (FYI: by and large, Tunisians use a little hose to wash up in the bathroom. TP is sometimes available in touristed areas but is considered dirty here and can't be flushed) and there was a bar with (limited) alcohol, where I purchased the first beer I've had since I've been here (while progressive, Tunisia is still a Muslim state and alcohol is difficult to find and often prohibitively expensive). The beach itself was a weird contrast between the familiar site of lobster-red, leathery, topless/speedo-clad European beach goers and Tunisian families with mothers wearing Burquinis (I kid you not--look them up!) which are surprisingly stylish swimsuits that include sleeves to the wrist, leggings to the ankle, and a waterproof veil.

The next morning we visited the ribat (fort) in Monastir which was much like Oxford castles except, like with the colosseum, we were free to wander in and out of rooms and stairs without the hindrance of safety bars or any of that non-adventuresome nonsense. Here's the view from the top of the tower. We also visited the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first and beloved president who lead the country through independence and is largely responsible for the non-secular, feminist nature of Tunisian poltics/society relative to the rest of the Arab world. I'm still trying to get a better grasp on modern-day Tunisian politics, which is proving difficult, as Tunisians are hesitant to mention Ben Ali (and when they do, they look around uncomfortably and end in elipses). At the least, I'm now very familiar with his face, as there is no shortage of images posted in markets, on the sides of buildings and in stores. On the one hand, I know that he's done a good job of continuing Bouguiba's policies towards religion/gender, which I approve of. On the other hand, the government blocks YouTube, which I definitely don't appreciate. It's a good thing I don't have any freetime here--I wouldn't know what to do with myself!

Hokay, back to homework now. Thanks to everyone who has been following along with me and leaving me comments from various corners of the world--and for those who asked, yes, the homestay situation is improving (although my French is only getting worse as my brain gets altogether over-languaged). !بسلام


  1. Can I come live your life for a bit? Just long enough for a good swim and sunbathe at that beach...

    We've had epic frosts here in Invercargill. James and I have moved the bed into the living room where it's warm. Both of us just finishing up with exams.

    What are you doing once your time in Tunesia is up? I'm looking at coming over for a course in Solvang, California for a few weeks in November, funds allowing, and it would be awesome to catch up while I'm in the right hemisphere!

    Good luck with your bartering :)

  2. hey Becca, it's great to read your blog and learn about a different part of Africa than what I know! it seems like your opportunity is totally amazing, and congratulations!

    and I've experienced your bartering woes, let me know what they teach you in class. I found that one simple thing is just to never show them how much you like whatever you're trying to buy!

    good luck!

  3. Loving the blog. Can't wait to read more!

  4. Wonderful photos! And I'm loving reading about your adventures. Makes me want to travel somewhere, anywhere warmer than Lawrence in the winter. So glad you are finding time to write despite your gruelling schedule!