Friday, July 10, 2009

"Sometimes it's just like that" : Tunisia's take on "Hakuna Matata"

So in spite of the many hiccups in our plan, last weekend was oddly one of the best I’ve had. (Note: the Zanzabarbarians title of the last post was a reference to a line in Muppet's Treasure Island that I say a lot...sorry if I got anyone confused into thinking I was in Tanzania.) Unfortunately, it has been followed by a particularly harrowing week that started with a bad midterm score and being a little behind on the hw (thanks to said fun weekend) and was complicated by the antics of incompetent state department travel agents, who have made trying to meet my mom in Morocco after Tunisia near impossible. It’s looking now like I’m going to be pulling a series of redeye flights to get home at the end—I'm sure it'll be worth it, though. Anyway, the result has been a shameful lack of blogging, because every time I start composing a post I guilt myself into working or stressing instead. No more, say I.

After Friday’s midterm, we (me, Akira, David the Berkeley photographer, and Brittney, who is going to do humanitarian work in Niger after this) hightailed it over to Tunis after class to catch a louage (8-passenger “taxi” service using vans). This was our first experience with the sometimes elaborately carpeted/curtained/doilyed, often smelly, non-air-conditioned, hope-you-like-the-driver’s-taste-in-music means of transportation, but by the end of the weekend we were experts and admirers. Louages are super cheap and the 8 dinar taxi ride to get around Tunis to the Louage “station” (read: strip of street packed with louages and their drivers beckoning and making their sale) was almost as much as the 9.700 we paid for the 3.5 hrs to Le Kef.

We got into Le Kef around 10:30, which I was thinking would be late until I remembered that Tunisians all stay up until after midnight—especially during the summer when everyone has off. Their logic is that it’s too hot to work, so even those who must work only do so in the mornings, sleep or beach-it in the afternoon, then stay up late into the night for a 10pm or so dinner and subsequent chatting over mint tea with pine nuts and shisha at cafes. (This includes children, who, like European kids, are often treated as mini-adults…bedtimes and even discipline are often in short supply). Before bed, we explored the Kasbah (castle) on the hilltop by night, enjoying the view of the town from above and befriending our first of many families on the walk back down. We picked a hotel that cost us 10 dinar a night ($8) each for the four-person “chambre de famille”—which was a fabulous room with three-century old Andalusian ornate plaster ceilings and hand-painted tile walls. That was about all that was fabulous, though…the shared bathroom had the option of a “Turkish” standing toilet or a rather sketchy, permanently brown regular one, there were bugs galore and the other rooms may have actually been smaller and less lit than prison cells. The only other patron we saw was a guy who sold fiber optic light up things on the sidewalk for a living (and yes, we bought one for night photography).

We awoke the next morning not quite as well rested as we’d hoped to catch a louage to Kalaat es-Senan. Half way through the 1hr ride through arid countryside, I felt a familiar traveler’s twinge in my stomach. When the louage dropped us Americans off at the National Guard post without consulting us and continued on to drop the regular passengers in town, I only had the stamina to argue with them for a few minutes in French before I had to beg for the bathroom. I spent nearly an hour negotiating in French (with intermittent bathroom breaks) with the National Guard, who seemed very alarmed at the sudden arrival of non-passport bearing Americans in their off-the-beaten path little village 6km from the Algerian border. Our original plan had been to sleep atop Jugurtha’s Table, but that was out right away; they wanted us to return immediately to El Kef for our protection. Every time I asked what was so dangerous I got a shudder at the accusatory word (this held true later on with other Tunisians, too): “There’s no danger. It’s just not safe for you. Sometimes it’s like that.” I finally convinced them to let us stay the day and at least hike the mountain, and managed to get us the freedom to wander through town without an escort if we agreed to use their driver to get to and from the base of the hill. They kept our stuff as leverage, and off we went to buy a mountaintop picnic. En route, we met a man sitting in the most pres-riffic building we had ever seen (the current Tunisian president’s picture is plastered everywhere) who did voter registration for a living. There’s a presidential election this winter, but apparently this guy (like many Tunisians, I’m sure) isn’t even registered in spite of his job. When we pressed him to explain why and express his opinion of his president, and whether or not he is dissatisfied with the fact that the government is pretty non-transparent and although it’s a “democracy” it’s pretty much impossible for anyone else to win, he said “Sometimes things are just like that.” That soon became the refrain of the trip—used to shrug off the National guard’s weirdness in Kalaat, the president, the repeated pulling over of our return Louage to demand passports (and sometimes bribes)…

We tried to grab some tea at a café, but I had only had a few sips before I had to check out the café’s bathroom (a standing style port-a-pot) and opted instead to return to the National Guard poste with Brittney. The boys joined us a half hour and an Imodium later for our drive to the mountain, in a bumbling paddy-wagon whose vent looked to me like an American flag—which I took, along with my newfound appreciation for American democracy and individual rights—to be my fourth of July present from Tunisia. It was overcast and raining ever so slightly as we began our ascent, Alhamdulillah—it would have been dying hot otherwise. About halfway up the stairs that have been carved into the rock and worn down by centuries of roman soldiers, cave-dwelling Berbers and sheep/goat herders, we ran into two guides summoned by the National Guard (sigh) to accompany us around the mountain and assure we left it when we were supposed to. Luckily they were pretty chill—humble peasants from the “village” at the foot of the hill who pointed out medicinal herbs and poisonous snakes and spiders and explained the mountain’s history (including a myth that the Islamic equivalent of Noah’s ark landed atop the plateau—cool!) as I interpreted from French to English with surprising ease (who knew I could say poultice, or kidney stones). The top of the plateau was dotted with caves that Berber dwellers used to live in during the harsh, snowy winter, pools used to collect rainwater, a shrine, and about a hundred small white snail shells per square foot (apparently their main predator, wild boars, can’t make it up so high).

We stopped around 3 for a picnic lunch of fresh bread, cheese, wine, and watermelon. Between the four of us and the two guides we ate a whole melon. David and Akira carved a face into the other one and Sharpied on a love note to the National Guard that we all signed. We then very ceremoniously threw the melon from the top of the cliff to create our own 4th o’ July fireworks at the bottom, much to the bewildered amusement of the guides.

It was about 6pm when we finally made it back to the National Guard post—an hour later than we had been told to get back to catch the last louage, and it was clear that the officers weren’t pleased. They chartered a special louage for us to get us the hell out of their hair and back to Le Kef. We got a slightly cleaner hostel room that night, which was apparently unbearably hot, but after a month of sleeping in my sauna of a room at “home” I was immune. Again, we spent our evening meeting and talking to random Tunisians, who all invited us home for couscous (we politely refused) and who kept us out at cafes until the wee hours.

All-in-all, awesome weekend, and the first chance I’ve really had to talk at length to “real” Tunisians and practice my Arabic. I’ve got a few more entries to catch up on—my life outpaces this blog by quite a bit—so stay tuned.

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