Monday, July 20, 2009

A bizarre and blustery weekend

This past weekend was, in the words of one of my guilty pleasure chick flicks, “surreal but nice.” It was dotted with strange moments and bittersweet overall—not only our last free weekend left in Tunisia, but also the end of any promise of real relaxation until the plane ride. Our schedule is going to really…well…suck…for these last two weeks. Somehow we have to write, memorize and perform a 15 minute skit and take a written test for Tunisian dialect, cover several more chapters of Al-Kitaab for MSA, sit one more regular weekly quiz, a written final, AND an oral evaluation of our language progress (and then, of course, there will be the phone interview we have when we get back to evaluate our fluency based on the standard scale as a reflection on the program and to determine our eligibility for future programs…).

I woke up early Saturday to meet Akira and catch a Louage to Cap Bon. Unfortunately, when I went to leave my room I found that the handle that has been tricky to use the entire time I’ve been here had finally decided to stop working altogether; I was locked in my own room. I tried to use a credit card to slide the lock open, but since the bolt part here is a solid rectangle and not the sleek, easily-manipulated triangle shape we have in the States, there was little I could do. Hearing my cellphone ringing in the other room (Akira, wondering where I was), I knocked on the wall to awake my host dad and tried my best to explain my dilemma through drywall-muffled French. I figured he would rustle up a screwdriver and pop off the plate for the handle, but lo and behold, he opted to just break the door down. I sat as calmly as I could on my bed for several minutes while he used his pent-up mosquito rage to break down the door (whose frame now has a chunk of wood ripped out of the wall near the still-nonfunctional handle...I’m using my bookbag to prop it closed-ish at night). A bizarre start to the day, to be sure.

Akira and I got in a Louage full of elderly veiled women (I love Louages! A new adventure everytime!) heading to El Houaria—a small town that somehow managed to be in the middle of nowhere in spite of its relatively close proximity to some of the most popular tourist beach towns on the Cape. Its one claim to fame is an annual falconry festival that we missed by about a month—outside of that, it’s a pretty sleepy town with its high proportion of falcon regalia as the only thing setting it apart from anywhere else. As was the case with El Kef, though, we enjoyed the chance to go at our own pace and be among “real” Tunisians free from the shadow of the tourist hoard on our program trips. Once there, we got a hotel recommendation from a group of French backpackers—48 dinar for the night, which was more than we’re used to, but it was cute and still a bargain by American standards. The hotel deskman gave us a little tour of the town, walking us to a sandwich café for lunch. We then hiked up to some ancient punic caves on the outskirts of the city, which served as limestone mines for the materials used to build the colosseum at El Jem and the ruins at Dougga that we had seen on early trips. I gave Akira an hour or so to get his geologist fill of the rocks before we went up to explore the cliffs and algae-rick tidal pools left by the angry waves that were smashing against the shore. Continuing trip tradition, we ate a melon and tossed the remains from the cliff face.

Later, after getting my soda snatched by the town crazy woman (bizarre incident #2), we caught a “taxi” (read: sketchy olive-colored car driven by the man who seemed to be generally recognized as the town “taxi guy”—we asked several people and they all referred us to him as if it should be obvious) to the beach. The beach was all Tunisians and not crowded at all. The water was the clearest we’ve seen anywhere so far, allowing us a good view of the little fish right under our feet, although the getting in-and-out part was surprisingly chilly. We missed the part in the guidebook where it told us that “Houaria” means “windy” in Arabic, and on our walk back to the hotel later we were both regretting not having brought jeans and jackets (what a shame, really…it would have been the first opportunity I’ve had to use the several that I brought). (Side note: one big benefit to the wind is that the hilltop turbines provide most of the town’s power). I stopped at a little boutique to buy a scarf to warm up with, and after trying unsuccessfully to rip me off, the woman decided that we were best friends, threw in the free “gift” of a hideously high-waisted pair of lacy underwear and begged for my number (bizarre incident #3). We got back to the hotel at about 8 and planned to rest for a few minutes before heading back out to dinner, but after waking up zombie-like at 10:30 we opted just to munch on some macroo cookies (the original fig newtons!) from the kind front desk man and catch up on some much needed sleep.

Sunday: not much to tell. Had to wait a while for the Louage to fill to head back to Tunis…learned how to make real mint tea from a sketchy table by the Louage station, walked around downtown a bit to find a bookstore for me to scope out French books (failure) and got some tea and shisha before we caught the crowded sweaty Sunday train back to our houses in the ‘burbs.

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