Then I talked DH into a Tunisian look-see!!
We knew we were heading for trouble when the connecting flight from Dubai to Tunis was one of the worst we had ever experienced
. It seemed to be an airlift of migrant workers from Tunisia returning home with copious amounts of booty. In North America a flight like that might have been diverted to the nearest airfield with unruly passengers getting unceremoniously removed. Instead, the beleaguered Emirates staff just kept barking out orders that went largely ignored (all the more mysterious because I don't think any of the behaviour was booze-fueled). DH got the worst of this as she was directly across from a boy- king that was on a successful mission to scream for 6 uninterrupted hours, and just to top her day off she was whacked in the head by some doufas that couldn't work out the physics of taking bags down from the overhead bins with care. In the zoo-like baggage collection area, the No Smoking signs seem to trigger a series of light ups (French colonial legacy??) and the air was blue in no time (and, of course, we had to wait in the haze for over an hour for the bags to be delivered).
Outside the airport we were swarmed by taxi touts- there's just no other word for it, and it looked like fights were breaking out. Many countries have figured out that an uncontrolled taxi driver should never be a visitors first exposure to that country, and they have instituted fixed rate kiosks that usually offer up reasonable prices. Not Tunisia. From airport staff we had determined a fair price for a downtown run ("maximum 6 Dinars") and were told to insist on a meter
. Yeah right. They might turn the meters on for locals but none would agree to do that with us and the prices we were getting ranged from 20-30 Euros (roughly 50 dinars). Apparently the lack of tourists has the drivers standing together to maximize the rip-off of any who do show up- we were saved by a driver who was parked at the back of the queue and saw an opportunity to grab a fare and jump the line by giving us a more acceptable price (10 dinars). Welcome to Tunisia.
While checking out the neighbourhood it became apparent that the neighbourhood was checking us out. We were approached by a number of disheveled dudes who claimed to be working at our hotel- very disconcerting that these dudes knew which hotel we were staying at- and they immediately offered to be our guide for the nearby Medina. Pushy to the point of threatening, I had to employ my very best death stare to get them to back off. Even waiters on the street would try to block and push you into their establishments. We did stop at one restaurant where we learned the hard way that you need to aggressively demand prices before ordering- short of calling the police, there are no remedies for the constant rip-off attempts in Tunis.
The other 'attraction' of Tunis is the omnipresent military and police- absolutely every government building is surrounded by coiled razor wire and armoured vehicles
. I don't know if it's a permanent feature of the urban landscape, but the anniversary of the countries Liberation Day was fast approaching and everyone appeared to be gearing up. Even the criminal cabbies were telling us that there was going to be trouble. Tunisia was the start point of the Arab Spring on Dec. 17, 2010, when a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the victim of police and government harassment, doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire . That 'fire' figuratively spread to engulf Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and now Syria. The transition in Tunisia was relatively peaceful (although the human cockfighting in the MMA might also seem peaceful relative to Egypt and Syria), and it was a big part of the reason we were here. I wanted to see what had happened since the heady days of the revolution and the chasing away of Ben Ali.
The current lack of jobs has made some Tunisians feel that the revolution has failed them; others fear that the intolerance of the puritanical Islamist wing is threatening to reverse a hard-won revolution for democracy– about 300 Tunisians died in the two months of rioting that started on the anniversary of the street vendor's death with sporadic flareups while we were there. The country is lurching away from its democratic inclinations to an Egypt-like situation, where a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government is flexing its muscles.
After another blatantly obvious taxi cab rip-off attempt by a driver who thought intimidation might work on a much bigger dude (me) who had had enough of Tunisian scams (he ended up with nothing), and DH telling me that "creepy" Tunisia dudes were whispering things at her as we walked the crowded streets, it was time for Plan B- I'm very protective of being the only one allowed to say inappropriate things to DH
. We had already tentatively arranged for a car and driver for a trip through the country so we packed that in. We were going to London after Tunisia anyway and after a quick internet scan there was a flight leaving for London in 10 hours, so in just a couple of key strokes we had our exit tickets. This was the first time we had bailed out of a country earlier than planned so I was a little concerned that we'd regret a rash decision but after a cab driver, arranged for by the hotel at a fixed price, tried to triple the rate as we drove to the airport (I quickly lost all ability to converse in French) we knew it wasn't going to get any better. An ugly altercation in the Departure area of the airport between two Tunisian dudes was just icing on the cake. Get us outta here!!
Tunisia does have what they call tourist zones which tend to be insulated beach resort locations and the port areas for visiting cruise ships, and organized bus tours seem to be the preferred choice for visiting some of the countries famous sites, and both of these might be viable options for someone wanting to visit Tunisia in relative tranquility but I can't see how an independent traveler would enjoy their days given the endless hassles and hostilities that seem to qualify as Tunisian hospitality. After a year and a half of travel, one stinker isn't bad and with London on the horizon along with unlimited licorice all-sorts, shortbread cookies, fish and chips, and Cadbury chocolate, we know its going to be great.
When we set out on this trip oh so many months ago we had promised ourselves that we would keep the pace flexible- if we liked a place we would stay a little longer (as 3 sojourns into Australia might suggest), and if we didn't like a place, we would move on guilt-free. For the most part we've been able to get it right- there's a couple of places I wished we had spent more time in but outside of keeping South Korea short to get to Japan (school holidays and peak season made for very badly behaved domestic tourists in Korea) and a concern for the future of Nepal, we were consistently left wanting more.